University president responds to Zoom-bombing incident
President Ron Liebowitz emailed faculty in December responding to the previous year's incident.
The University President’s Office sent out an email to faculty on Dec. 6, 2021 responding to a ProPublica article that mentions last November’s Zoom-bombing incident at a Brandeis panel on atrocities against the Uyghur people in China. The article, “Even on U.S. Campuses, China Cracks Down on Students Who Speak Out,” discusses student and Chinese government responses to student and scholar critiques of the Chinese government.
In his email, Liebowitz explained that he was writing in response to a number of faculty members reaching out to “express concern about the lack of an institutional statement in response” to the incident. According to the ProPublica article, one such faculty member was Gordon Fellman (SOC). “The University really didn’t condemn this,” Fellman told ProPublica. “Many of us were puzzled. We thought it called for a strong condemnation.”
Liebowitz assured faculty in his email that the delay in response was a mistake, and that the Zoom-bombing incident “should have drawn a swift response.” In other parts of the email, he explained that one reason for this delay was the “frequent requests for the University to make statements in response to events and comments that offended various university constituents.”
Liebowitz said that another reason the office didn’t respond right away was due to an increase in messaging regarding COVID-19 policy. “The large number of emails we were sending to the community around the time of the panel, which were focused on health and safety, was perhaps a factor in holding back on a public statement,” he wrote.
He also reminded faculty that in August 2021, the president’s office had sent an email in support of free academic expression. Liebowitz quoted the August email: “The freedom to research, explore, and teach controversial and politically sensitive topics … is vital to the pursuit of truth and knowledge. The protection of this freedom has been an institutional imperative since our founding.”
Unlike other emails from Liebowitz, this email is not available for public viewing under the “Letters and Addresses” section of the Office of the President page.
Some professors expressed concern that the email was only made available to faculty. Maura Jane Farrelly (AMST) told the Justice in a Jan. 14 email that although she was happy with the content of Liebowitz’s “belated” response to the Zoom-bombing, she thought that the entire Brandeis community should have been able to see his email. “I was concerned … by the fact that his response was sent just to the faculty, and not to the entire university community. … It was also important for the unidentified students who did the bombing to read his response. For that to happen, Ron’s note needed to be addressed to the entire University community.”
In addition to Liebowitz’s email statement to faculty, the Assistant Vice President for Communications Julie Jette made a comment to ProPublica on behalf of Brandeis. “The interruption of last year’s panel including Rayhan Asat was entirely unacceptable,” she told ProPublica. “Brandeis regrets that this occurred, and we strongly affirm our commitment to presenting multiple viewpoints and protecting free speech within our community.”
Rayhan Asat, a human rights lawyer and panelist at the Zoom event who was the main target of the attack, spoke to ProPublica about her experience on the panel and the broader issue of Chinese interference with American academia. “That is what is happening at U.S. universities. They are self-censoring themselves in order to recruit Chinese students for economic benefit,” she told ProPublica. According to the article, Brandeis did not comment on this allegation.
Farrelly shared a similar concern with Asat. She wrote that Liebowitz’s email only addressing faculty leaves “open the possibility that the University did not want to risk alienating cash-paying students who might not come to Brandeis if they sense the culture here does not tolerate any effort to censor those who are critical of the Chinese government.” Farrelly told the Justice in a Dec. 7, 2021 email that she had expressed these concerns to Liebowitz via email.
The ProPublica article revealed that Brandeis’ chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association was behind a campaign that involved sending letters to the president’s office criticizing the panel leading up to the event. Liebowitz told faculty in his email that “there was pressure from some quarters not to have one of our colleagues participate in the panel, but the senior administration encouraged our colleague to participate.”
However, the article also says that there is no evidence that the CSSA was involved in the Zoom-bombing event. The article quotes Asat as saying that she could “see the Chinese government’s hand behind it.” Though a 2018 investigation by the news outlet Foreign Policy “found that CSSAs regularly accept funds from their local consulates and many officially describe themselves as under the ‘guidance’ or ‘leadership’ of the embassy,” there is currently no evidence that Brandeis CSSA is advised or funded by Chinese consulates or the government.