More on Brandeis and Carter:

I've just come upon a rather remarkable essay by Prof. Harry Mairson of Brandeis University. Mairson was the primary force in pushing for Jimmy Carter to visit Brandeis, an event covered previously on this blog. The Carter visit created great controversy at Brandeis, and, along with more general controversy over the relationship between the Jewish community and Brandeis, was the subject of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education story.

Back to the Mairson essay: in it, he decries attachment to Jewish tradition and defends assimilation in remarkably unapologetic, even offensive, terms. How unapologetic? Mairson writes, "It's a shame that they're not making Jews like Felix [Mendelsohn, who was baptized and lived as a Christian] any more." Bizarrely, honoring Brandeis's Jewish heritage, according to Mairson, means "being a good theoretical computer scientist, ... doing a good job teaching, ... interacting with students, and .. getting grant funding." Those are all fine things, but what does that have to do with "Jewish?" Even Judaic studies, a secular, what might even say assimilationist, academic approach to Jewish history, religion, and culture, is "too Jewish" for Mairson, who decries the fact that Brandeis has a well-funded, influential, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department. Not to mention that he appears offended that an increasing number of Jewish Day School graduates are attending Brandeis (Orthodox Jews, according to Mairson, are not "diverse.")

All of this is a long way of saying that despite the pretense that the Carter visit was about "tolerance" and "academic freedom," it's more likely that it was an intentionally provocative act intended to harm, or even sever, the relationship between Brandeis and the Jewish community. That may or may not be a good thing (as I've noted previously, I think that there are much more worthy Jewish causes to donate to, if that's what you are after), but it conflicts with the self-righteousness displayed by Mairson and his allies on the faculty.

Moreover, as I've noted previously, the self-proclaimed defenders of academic freedom at Brandeis have still, to my knowledge, not said a word about Brandeis including the politicized concept of "social justice" in its mission statement. President Jehuda Reinharz has made Brandeis more of an officially "Jewish" institution (though the percentage of Jewish students has decreased), at least when soliciting donors, but even more so he has made it more an of an officially "liberal" institution. Funny how only one these maneuvers raises the hackles of Mairson and other faculty.

UPDATE: I'd be curious to know how many of the Brandeis professors who were intent on inviting Carter to campus were among those who protested the university's plan to award Jeane Kirkpatrick an honorary degree in 1994, on a purely ideological basis.

Diversity Within Institutions vs. Diversity Across Institutions:

David's post on efforts to make Brandeis University more "diverse" by making it less distinctively Jewish gives me a good opportunity to write about a pet peeve: The conflict between diversity within institutions and diversity across them.

Those who argue for diversity in higher education implicitly envision a school that has a "critical mass" of whites, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and other groups. Such a university may well be internally diverse (at least in an ethnic sense), but if every school pursues this ideal, than they will all look more or less alike on the ethnic dimension, or whatever other criterion is chosen as the focus of diversity promotion. There will be diversity within institutions, but very little diversity across institutions.

By contrast, if Brandeis continues to be a distinctively Jewish school, Brigham Young continues to be a distinctively Mormon school, and so on, these schools can make unique contributions to American higher education that might otherwise be lost. Although Brandeis and BYU may not be internally diverse, they definitely add to the overall diversity of the American higher education system in two important ways. First, they give students who want to attend a distinctively Jewish or Mormon school an option they would not have if all schools stick to the internal diversity model. Second, faculty at a distinctively Jewish or Mormon school might well pursue research on subjects that are ignored or at least deemphasized at other types of institutions. Brandeis' traditional focus on hiring faculty who study the history of Judaism and the Jewish people is an example of the latter.

To be sure, a school built around a particular group identity will have weaknesses as well as strengths. But the weaknesses are offset by the fact that there will always be hundreds of other schools that do not try to foster a distinctive group identity. Students and faculty who don't want to be associated with a distinctively Jewish school have plenty of options, even if they can't attend Brandeis. The question is not whether there should be a large number of internally diverse schools, but whether all schools should be that way. Both students and scholars will be worse off if we exalt diversity within institutions to such an extent that diversity across institutions is eliminated.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Diversity Within Institutions vs. Diversity Across Institutions:
  2. More on Brandeis and Carter: