The importance of recognizing student activism
As a University that “Considers social justice central to its mission,” according to its Diversity Statement, Brandeis has an obligation to do everything it can to make campus safe and equitable for all members of the Brandeis community.
Acknowledging through words how structural racism and other forms of systemic oppression impact students and other community members in marginalized groups, both on and off campus, can be an important first step to addressing these issues at the institutional level. However, to protect and support students in marginalized communities, the University must commit to long-term action and concrete policy changes.
The administration has shown a lack of follow-through and transparency in its efforts to address institutional racism at Brandeis. A page on the Brandeis website lists the status of commitments made and actions taken by the University in response to specific demands of the Black Action Plan — a list of demands created entirely by students in the summer of 2020 that laid out clear action steps to address student concerns and begin dismantling structural racism at Brandeis. According to the list on the Brandeis website, only six of the Black Action Plan’s demands have been met or partially addressed in the two years since the demands were made.
If Brandeis is truly committed to confronting and addressing institutionalized racism on its campus, as President Liebowitz stated when Brandeis’ own Anti-Racism Plans were released, why has so little progress been made to address the concerns and demands that its students so clearly laid out in the Black Action Plan?
The BAP was created entirely on the efforts and hard work of Black students at Brandeis — namely Sonali Anderson ’22 and DeBorah Ault ’22 — who worked tirelessly to make sure the University’s anti-racism plans would result in actual change. In May 2022, Anderson told the Justice that initially, Brandeis created anti-racism plans containing goals and promises, without specific plans for how it would achieve them.
This is a clear example of how the University often prioritizes words over —and often without—action in its approach to social injustices on campus.
Liebowitz stated in the release of the University’s anti-racism plans that “Brandeis will continue to work on the development of strategies for ongoing accountability and the tracking of progress.” The most recent publicly available update on the University’s Anti-Racism Plans was in December 2021, with the release of the finalized plans. Since then, students have not been informed about the status of the initiatives laid out in these plans.
The administration has offered almost no information about changes that have been made in line with these plans, and individual departments are not required to update their students on what progress has been made within the department.
A pivotal component of the University’s Anti-Racism Plans was to incorporate anti-racism guidelines within the different departments. Administrative and academic departments and programs were asked to reflect on “how the policies, practices, and attitudes relating to their work have a disproportionate and adverse impact on members of the Brandeis community,” the Dec. 2021 letter to the community read. Part of this self reflection process involved forming committees to identify how individual entities had “fallen short in combating institutionalized racism.” These committees would then go on to draft anti-racism plans for their respective departments.
This editorial board contends that there was not enough University accountability in the drafting and maintenance of these plans. Different academic departments committed to anti-racism action to varying degrees – a successful institutional response to systemic racism within academia requires the strong commitment of all entities within the system, and Brandeis did not do an adequate job of holding all of the academic departments accountable.
For example, a student told the Justice that she tried to get involved with the Psychology Department’s anti-racism committee in April 2022 only to be informed that the committee had not met since fall 2020 and was unofficially disbanded. This is unacceptable.
Addressing institutional racism is an ongoing process that should involve the input of multiple generations of student leaders. Contrastingly to the absent response from the Psychology Department, the Sociology Department created a diversity & equity liaison position. Prof. Sarah Mayorga (SOC) held this position for a year and visited the sociology classes to promote a survey where students could provide feedback on the department’s response. Mayorga’s position as equity liaison ended at the end of last semester.
Since the University released the final version of the Anti-Racism Plans in December 2021, students have received only two emails mentioning anti-racism plans in the context of the plans being implemented. Both were Board of Trustees meeting reports sent by President Ron Liebowitz, one in Feb. 2022 and the other in April 2022. Each email briefly referred to a presentation that an administrator gave to a committee about efforts to implement parts of the Plans.
We understand that dismantling institutional racism is a complex process that will require continuous efforts on the part of administration, faculty, staff, and students. Creating anti-racism plans was a crucial starting point for this long process. But this is not enough. Without consistent updates from the University and its departments on what actions are being taken to carry out these initiatives, students cannot hold their university accountable and the plans are rendered meaningless.
Additionally, committees made up entirely – or almost entirely – of non-students should not be the only people being updated on how the Anti-Racism Plans are being put into practice. At their core, the Anti-Racism Plans exist to make long overdue changes to make Brandeis a safe and supportive place for Black students and other students of color. If students are not being informed about how the plans are being transformed into actions, and are left out of this process, then the Anti-Racism Plans will fail before they have a chance to make a difference.
What’s more, students were instrumental in developing the Anti-Racism Plans. The University has an even greater obligation to keep its student body informed about how these plans are being turned into actions because without Black students and other students of color voicing their concerns, sharing their experiences, and making demands to the school, the current Anti-Racism Plans would not exist. The final version of these plans is the result of the work of Black student activists who led the creation of the Black Action Plan.
This failure to adequately respond to the BAP and inability to continuously address racism on campus is part of a larger pattern at Brandeis, and on university campuses in general, where students take up the brunt of activism work and receive little institutional support. We see this within the Brandeis community. For example, in Nov. 2021, the Brandeis Leftist Union released a petition in support of dining workers. These demands were eventually met following a March 2022 rally and sit-in but were only addressed after numerous demonstrations, months of organizing, and many hours spent in negotiation with the University.
Community Advisors also organized to demand better contract terms that would include meal plan compensation. In April 2021, a letter containing these demands signed by CAs was sent to Liebowitz and other members of the administration. CAs met with administration in the following months, but no meaningful changes to the CA contract were made. A year later, CAs created a second petition that was released and met with support from the student body. This petition pointed out that CA staff at Brandeis is largely made up of students who are BIPOC, low-income, or the first in their families to attend college and said the administration’s “continued lack of recognition fails to meet the commitments made by the University to support its marginalized students.”
The University should be more involved, care more about, and be more responsive to the concerns of their students and staff. We as a student body and as a community have continuously shown that we are capable of voicing our concerns, but we are often met with deaf ears by key players in the administration.
This editorial was not written with the intention to discount or discredit student activism — in fact, quite the opposite: This editorial board believes that student activism is crucial, and our community and its improvements would not exist without the tireless work of student activists.
We applaud student activists for their work but recognize their limitations to effect systemic change during a 4 year —or less— period with an unsupportive administration. People like Ault and Anderson were so crucial to creating the BAP and organizing racial reform on campus, but these students are only students for so long. When these social justice powerhouses graduate, the University needs to be able to provide support to these students and student-led organizations, especially during times of transition.
The Brandeis administration has fallen short of fully supporting student efforts to make Brandeis a safe supportive place for all students. The University needs to recognize student activism as in line with its mission of social justice.
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