Saying "Jehovah" at Brandeis?

Let's briefly recap the situation: A professor is found guilty of "racial harassment," apparently because he mentioned the term "wetback" in class. He says he wasn't trying to be offensive towards Mexicans or Mexican-Americans (illegal immigrant, legal immigrant, or otherwise), but was merely discussing and condemning some people's attitudes towards them. The student who apparently complained hasn't been quoted as squarely disagreeing with him, but perhaps she does.

The university refuses to publicly say what it thinks the professor said. Is it missing the use/mention distinction? Is it imitating Monty Python? Does it take the view that both using (in the sense of endorsing the message of) and mentioning (in the sense of quoting or describing) the word "wetback" is racial harassment? Does it conclude, as a factual matter, that the professor actually used the term, rather than just mentioning it? Even if he did use it, is he found guilty of racial harassment because he expressed an idea using epithets, or because the idea he expressed — and is Brandeis's view that the racially harassing and therefore prohibited idea is hostility to Mexican-Americans, hostility to Mexican immigrants, or hostility to Mexican illegal immigrants?

No-one knows. No-one knows what is and is not allowed for Brandeis professors who teach controversial subjects. No-one can sensibly evaluate the merits of Brandeis's professor speech code. That's what critics of Brandeis have been saying.

Now here's the response from Brandeis's Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs:

7:51 a.m. January 29, 2008

Dear Faculty Colleagues,

I am well aware that many of you are concerned about the investigatory process and outcome following a complaint by a student last semester against a member of our faculty. As a member of the faculty and as an administrator, I share with all of you the goal and expectation that our university policies reflect our core values of academic freedom, the right of our students to a learning environment that is free of harassment, and the right to privacy in personnel matters.

As you know, the University is legally required to have a non-discrimination and harassment policy. Our policy and investigatory procedures were substantially revised in 2006, following extensive discussions with the Faculty Senate. These procedures instructed the investigation conducted last semester and that case is now considered closed. Because of our obligation to ensure confidentiality, I have been unwilling to comment publicly about this case, despite the misrepresentations of the investigatory process and outcomes that are now widely circulated in the media.

Some of you have expressed confusion concerning what constitutes racially harassing speech and how the University conducts a legally required investigation. As a community, we can all agree that this confusion is not healthy and that we must work together to understand both our legal and academic responsibilities. I have been and will continue to work with the Faculty Senate Council regarding programs for the faculty that increase our internal capacity for understanding diversity issues.

I am saddened by the pain that our community has experienced recently and I want to open up channels for constructive dialogue. The spirit and specifics of our current policy reflects thoughtful discussions between the faculty and university administrators. I expect that such conversations will continue to inform this and other university policies in the future.


Marty Wyngaarden Krauss
Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Ah, you'll surely say — now everything is fine! The confusion is unhealthy, and the community's pain is saddening, but the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs will work with the faculty regarding programs that increase everyone's internal capacity for understanding diversity issues. Not only that, but she'll open up channels for constructive dialogue (though apparently not about this incident, since this case is now considered closed).

Look: This is an issue that goes to the heart of Brandeis's role as a center for learning and teaching, and its credibility as a center for learning and teaching. And the University's response is that the "case is now considered closed," and no further information is forthcoming (except perhaps through future "programs that increase our internal capacity for understanding diversity issues"). Nor is the confidentiality argument plausible — the question is what the university thinks the professor (who has spoken publicly on the matter) said in class in front of many students.

Is it really so much to ask the university to reveal this one simple factual finding? Or is the university worried about what this factual finding will say about it and the rules that it is actually applying?