Dear President Liebowitz: put students first and prioritize campus climate, DEI, and accessibility
Dear President Ron Liebowitz, Provost Carol Fierke, Executive Vice President of Finance and Administration Stewart Uretsky, Vice President Raymond Ou, Assistant Vice President Shelby Harris, Chair of the Board of Trustees Lisa Kranc:
Why are we still here? Why, after nearly two years of talk about meaningful change and progress in anti-racism do we still find this progress minimal or highly variable across our departments? Why, as an institution, do we tell our students to wait and hesitate to forge even the simplest of diversity, equity, and inclusion oriented changes?
We are a coalition of former and current students working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at Brandeis and in the Division of Science in particular. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and others, we saw a reckoning in higher education that, as in every other sector of American life, forced many to confront structural racism. While this awakening has led to some gains among some of our departments, many issues go woefully unaddressed, despite the concerns about them being far from new.
The latest update to the University’s anti-racism plans, dated December 2021, represents the time and collected efforts of faculty, staff, and students, our own organization included. We contributed in earnest to this work, believing that any small victories on our part mattered, and we are proud of what small gains have thus far been made. However, we hope that your office and your administration understand that, in the absence of more significant change, our institution's commitment to social justice remains more performative than transformative. What exactly have we learned from the promise of Ford Hall 2015 or the 2018 campus climate reports? We see the same problems and demands surface again and again without resolution. We use the vocabulary of genuine surprise upon realizing that we are mired in a stagnation that has thrived on the turnover of our student body and that of key administrative positions: to name a capable few who left too soon, we remember Dr. Scott Lapinski, former interim Director for Student Accessibility Support; Dr. Mark Brimhall-Vargas, former Chief Diversity Officer; Dr. Aretina Hamilton and Dr. Allyson Livingstone, the two most recent individuals to have served as Director of DEI Programming and Education.
We came to learn through our collective experiences that our problems define an institution with no qualms about projecting the image of a university that values social justice while lacking in substantive resources, capital, or leadership to live up to this mission. To some extent, the inertia is not unique to Brandeis, but we are resolute in our belief that at a place such as Brandeis, we really ought to be doing better. We are aware that other Brandeisians ranging from undergraduate students to tenured faculty have voiced similar thoughts, and that we likely will not be the last.
We have seen the impact of this structural apathy play out with appalling effect in the Division of Science where, by and large, social justice and inclusion continue to be treated as a “pet project” that is not a priority deserving of expertise. Minority representation and equity are still regarded as a zero-sum game; these ideals are still widely considered incompatible with academic excellence. Several in the Division have, rightly, become frustrated by these attitudes. We sincerely appreciate the work of those on DEI committees and Division leadership who have produced actionable plans and motioned toward progress among our departments. We also commend the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Wendy Cadge, and others who have advocated for changes to the wording of graduate student handbooks and for increases in graduate student stipends, which we hope will alleviate two stressors of graduate student life: the cost of living and relationships with faculty. But the disparate efforts of the few can only make our progress fitful at best. In the years that have marked our rise to prominence as a research-intensive institution, we have encountered the same pitfalls that beleaguer institutions elsewhere: Brandeis has glossed over matters such as academic abuse, the exploitation of graduate student workers, and the maladaptive effects of academic hierarchy. Are we truly so devoid of imagination and compassion that we cannot bring ourselves to innovate our teaching and research, to recognize that science is inherently political, and to challenge old notions of merit to improve the experiences of undergraduate and graduate students alike?
By now, we had hoped that Brandeis would follow in the footsteps of other institutions like Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College, where student-led strikes in solidarity with BIPOC students brought momentous change to the culture in STEM departments at both colleges. In the case of Amherst College, student protests in 2015 led to the design of a distinctive special topics course to explore the theme of diversity in the STEM student experience at Amherst and beyond, using a model that has since been replicated at many other schools. We ask again: why not Brandeis? With the understanding that there is the same educational benefit in productive struggle in STEM as there is in other fields, we would like to remind certain faculty that abuse is not a mentoring style. Unfortunately, when a student finds themself in a workplace or classroom that is unwelcoming or abusive, it is commonly seen as a personal problem rather than the result of a larger systemic dysfunction that it so often is. Our University leadership has done virtually nothing to counter this tendency, a missed opportunity in a time when even our nation’s presidential science advisor was unable to treat his colleagues with respect.
We argue in no uncertain terms that better campus climate and DEI infrastructure cannot be achieved for free. It is embarrassing that our administration compelled faculty to list a set of five objectives – devised more than a year ago – that would improve conditions and advance DEI-related change, only to prevent our departments from listing more than two items associated with monetary cost. In other words, these same departments have had their hands tied by an administration that refuses to make logistical or financial resources available even when it is so clearly needed. In some cases, students of color have shouldered the misplaced burden of contributing formal DEI-related expertise to our predominantly white faculty – roles that should be fulfilled by resources made available through our institution. Similar obstacles have prevented Brandeis from meeting basic standards of accessibility, as many other students have pointed out. Beyond that, calls for greater financial transparency – including a demand from the Black Action Plan – have gone almost totally ignored by your office and the Board of Trustees. Student activists as well as individual professors and administrators who care deeply about Brandeis can only exert so much influence. We need you and your administration to meet us halfway, now. For anyone as concerned as our administration is about money, it would be worth considering, for example, the thousands upon thousands of dollars in fellowship and grant funding that are lost in failed mentoring relationships between students and faculty advisors.
Perhaps our most troubling problem is our collective, institutional amnesia. We have attended countless meetings with working groups, administrators, and students, having to explain our problems ad nauseam. With each conversation and with few exceptions, we have had to reiterate from scratch the vast history of complaints, the hours invested, and the substance of documents reviewed. Without any robust means of institutional memory, issues pertinent to our cause have been relegated to discussion in whisper networks. All of this has happened under your watch. The longer we wait to take action, the more likely members of our community are to think of inequity, underrepresentation, faculty misconduct, and other problems as something normal or something to be made normal. The current state of affairs, as many others have pointed out, is not sustainable.
We are not entries in a spreadsheet for your convenient tabulation, nor a set of hands to submit under the will of thoughtless research faculty. We are living and breathing students with lives, aspirations, and affections of our own. The choice before you now is whether to enable the status quo or to recognize our humanity the way we had always hoped Brandeis would. We must commit to a Brandeis that isn’t ashamed of acknowledging its faults and that does not react defensively when they are pointed out. Brandeis can only evolve when we recognize and lay bare the many challenges before us. Our motto of “truth unto its innermost parts” obliges us to engage in self-criticism that will enable us to see the internal clockwork of our institution – defects and all – not in denial and obscurity, but in the light as a unified and whole Brandeis community.
We urge you, your colleagues, and all concerned members of the Brandeis community to put students first and to take concrete, decisive action on campus climate and the state of DEI, anti-racism, and accessibility at all levels within our institution. We repeat that we are living, breathing students suffering from very real problems to address. Let’s do something about them.
– The Anti-Racism Alliance in the Sciences at Brandeis University