On March 3, over 80 Brandeis Posse scholars, their guests, called “pluses,” and various faculty members attended the annual Posse Plus Retreat held at the Sons of Italy Function Hall in Watertown. TheBrandeis’s website, the Posse Program is described as a “merit-based scholarship program.” As Posse scholars, students are “expected to be not only strong students but also demonstrate outstanding interpersonal and problem-solving skills,” with an emphasis on leadership skills. These attributes were all evident at the retreat titled, “Education Recalculated,'' which ended up focusing on various troubling topics pertaining to Brandeis University. 

The retreat is an annual event and an expectation of the scholars, who often are asked to take time off of work and school to attend. Attendance at PPR is an expectation of the Posse Program and students who are unable to make time for the event risk losing their full-tuition scholarship.

After a series of icebreakers, an activity dubbed “the human barometer,” sparked the discussion that occupied the remainder of the day. On one wall a sign was posted that said “strongly agree” and on the opposite wall a sign was posted that said “strongly disagree.” The event organizers provided various contentious statements and students would arrange themselves according to their personal beliefs, with some students volunteering to give their reasoning for their placement. For example, one student said, “I believe the cost of college is worth the benefits.” During this activity, Brandeis University president, Ron Liebowitz, entered the function hall. President Liebowitz has attended PPR for a commendable duration of the event in the past few years. This year, however, Liebowitz was noticeably absent for the first couple of hours of the retreat. The statement “I believe there should be limits to free speech on campus” was given and a scholar directed a question to President Liebowitz inquiring how he has developed an understanding of free speech as it applies to Brandeis University campus. Liebowitz chose to make a clarification between free speech and “gratuitous speech”, later defining the term as actions that don’t further a discussion*. The retreat then shifted to a roundtable discussion that included the voices of both the administration and students as it pertains to free speech conversation on campus. 

Some of the students directed questions or statements directly to President Liebowitz and some spoke more generally to the other attendees. After approximately twenty minutes of discussion, a three-minute break was called, much to the protests of the students who had been waiting patiently for their turn to speak. The event organizers announced the break as a way for them to regroup and readjust their programming. The break was then extended to ten minutes. During the break, a multitude of scholars witnessed President Liebowitz fleeing the building — running down the stairs to the exit after spending merely twenty minutes of the eleven-hour event in attendance. His dramatic exit offended nearly every person in attendance, as he demonstrated an unwillingness to listen to student voices. His supposed support of free speech became ironic as he was unable to merely sit and listen to students speaking freely. Instead, he took the first opportunity to leave the discussion.  

We received statements from five students who attended the event, some of whom chose to remain anonymous. Many students at the event felt that the voices of students with views that differed from the Brandeis status quo were being silenced, as freshman E.O. explains: “Our university, in particular, is at a time where the political climate is tense,” however, “we should be about to feel free when speaking about things that concern us on our campus.” In response to the discussion sparked around free speech, sophomore H.A. stated “These discussions, which were previously whispered about around campus out of fear, have now come to the forefront. Enough is enough, and [we are] relieved that students on this campus were provided with an uninterrupted platform to express their concerns to Brandeis faculty, staff, and administrators.” E.O. claimed that “the discussion we had needed to happen, as a lot of students seem to have this sort of inner grievance with the campus and certain rules that were set in place and certain actions of board members, so I would acknowledge how it was destined to happen, but the POSSE retreat was simply a catalyst.“ 

The silencing of pro-Palestine voices was a main topic of the free-speech conversation with senior K.B. adding “How they [Brandeis administration] have chosen to respond is in complete contradiction to a “social justice university,” a claim of free speech and protection… this school will forever be a contradiction due to the way Ron and administration have addressed the matter and protests.” There was a discussion on the protest and subsequent arrests that occurred on the Brandeis campus in the fall semester with K.B addressing the concerns of students about “the deprivation of education that [President Liebowitz] supports both globally and here on campus” regarding “those who were wrongfully abused and arrested.” The general consensus pointed to a necessary discussion around topics such as the Israel-Palestine Conflict and the fearful attitudes around the supposed “free speech” on campus. 

Eventually, the participants moved the discussion towards the lack of community on campus. Posse, an organization founded for the purpose of uniting students, was almost unanimously regarded as having a lack of presence on campus. One scholar shares, “I don't know if posse has a stronger presence on other campuses, but I do feel that it lacks connections and its presence on the Brandeis campus”, effectively summarizing the feelings of the group present on the day of the retreat. Similarly, another scholar shares that “Brandeis in specific lacks to support Posse Scholars.” 

As a result of…, the annual Posse Plus Retreat acts as one of the few spaces at Brandeis where scholars have a space set aside for community engagement. This also means that this is one of the few spaces where scholars discuss shared experiences and commune in their struggles on campus. Yet, many students left the retreat feeling that an “event full of POC ask[ing] challenging questions of Brandeis’ President…were quickly and resolutely silenced by representatives of Posse National” (anonymous). In summary, Posse students lack a space to share their experiences, and when they do have a space to speak with each other and administration, their concerns are effectively silenced. BAP 10 Scholar, K.B., shares, “Students are suffering, we are hurting and have been for a very long time, yet we have no support promised to us by those who claim to be leaders themselves,” exemplifying how issues of free speech and safe spaces on campus are timely and pressing. 

Furthermore, the Posse Plus Retreat is a space that represents a large population of Black and Brown students. Brandeis, as a predominantly white institution (PWI), rarely holds formal spaces where Black and Brown students can convene and speak about their shared experiences. Many scholars found that “the Posse retreat was simply a catalyst” for discussions that have been brewing on campus in underrepresented areas (E.O.). 

The discussion and abrupt departure of President Liebowitz left many with the feeling that, “at a PWI, it often feels that certain voices are amplified more than others” (anonymous). Additionally, E.O. continued to illustrate how “Posse accounts for a lot of the diversity on campus, and it’s very essential for our voices to be heard and for ideas we proposed to be decentralized,” adding to the idea that POC students aren’t given the space to voice and share their concerns in the same way that white students on campus are. 

K.B. also addressed how the administration is to blame for these patterns of discrimination on campus. The scholar shared this statement about President Liebowitz’s abrupt departure, “The visible privilege to be able to just leave — because those in Palestine cannot, nor did I in my four years of struggling in university here — and the lack of concern for a space of majority Black and Brown students made me so angry.” They reflected on their time here as graduation creeps closer, saying, “The university associated with this diploma will mean nothing to me once I have graduated but rather a symbol of my ability to overcome all of the hurdles that white supremacy has strategically set in front of me for the entirety of my life. Brandeis' administration has terribly failed!” (K.B.) K.B.’s comments speak to another discussion that occurred at the retreat directed at the administration’s response to the contemporary issues of mass murders occurring in Palestine. K.B. leaves us with the thought, “It will take diversity and erotic thought that Black and brown students bring to universities, one day he will need us as a leadership-based scholarship and we will never forget how he wasn’t a leader when we needed him.” 

Before his exit, President Liebowitz invited the attendees to visit him in his office to address their concerns, however, many students felt this was an insufficient solution. Senior K.B. felt the invitation was a “suggestion of more labor” and that “his office was not a safe space.” One anonymous scholar explained that the opportunity presented by PPR “to have a discourse off-campus leveled the ‘playing field’ substantially” and the discussion happening in President Liebowitz’s office would have an enormous power imbalance that has the potential to hinder free speech due to fear of repercussion. K.B. shared the sentiment that his invitation made it feel “as if our presence here and courageous acts of involvement here was not enough, because he refused to acknowledge it.” 

An anonymous student summarized “The fact that the president walked out while everyone was trying to state the issues on this campus…was very disrespectful.” Branch adds “His presence was performative and his absence was cowardly.” Overall, President Liebowitz left students feeling shocked, disappointed, hurt, and offended by his inability to participate in a discussion as important as the one had at PPR. 

The resilience of Posse students shines through even after a tumultuous PPR. In direct response to the issues raised, scholars made a demonstrated effort to make their own space on campus. The Posse Instagram was created recently for and by Posse scholars, but all students on campus should show their support by following the page and sharing and uplifting their experiences. Despite the uncomfortable discussions that the community had, Posse is a group of people on campus who will never abandon each other, even when their administration and organization fail them. Posse students on campus should be recognized as courageous leaders on campus who are unabashedly creating positive change and inspiring conversation on campus. The administration should facilitate efforts that uplift Posse scholar’s voices. 

*Disclaimer: the retelling of events is subject to the memory of the authors corroborated by the statements of the students who chose to share their experiences. The paraphrasing of Ron Liebowitz's statements is subject to human error.

Disclaimer: The Posse Plus Retreat included a verbal confidentiality agreement to protect students' statements. The only statements cited in this article are the ones that students have explicitly permitted to share.