Brandeis’ commitment to founders’ values
May 31, 2016
Dear Members of the Brandeis Community,
On May 31, a Steinhardt Social Research Institute team headed by Leonard Saxe, the Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies, released an independent study of undergraduate attitudes toward race, ethnicity, and religion at Brandeis University.
The report (PDF) affirms significant challenges related to race and ethnicity that were expressed during protests at Brandeis and at numerous campuses across the United States. According to the survey, Black students face feelings of isolation, marginalization, and discrimination to a far greater extent than other groups on campus. These experiences are antithetical to Brandeis’ founding mission: providing educational opportunities to groups denied access to elite colleges and universities due to bigotry.
Brandeis has developed a comprehensive plan to begin to address the issues highlighted in this and other campus climate surveys as well as during the fall semester’s campus protests. Changing the climate on campus is critical to honoring our founding mission and requires a concerted, dedicated, and long-term effort on the part of Brandeis faculty, staff, and students.
The survey also offers new information on religious life on campus. While many U.S. campuses have reported safety and tolerance concerns for Jewish students, the Steinhardt report found that Jewish students at Brandeis feel safe and supported, and overwhelmingly report feeling “at home” on campus. They also felt most strongly that there is “tolerance toward all religious groups” on campus, and, despite the reported rise of anti-Semitism on other college campuses, very few agreed with the statement that there is a hostile environment towards Jews at Brandeis. In addition, views toward Israel differ markedly at Brandeis compared to other campuses. The survey found that only two percent of Jewish students “strongly agreed” with the statement that there is a hostile environment toward Israel on campus and stated: “in general, relatively few Brandeis students expressed any support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.” This is welcome evidence that Brandeis remains committed to its distinctive role in and connection to the Jewish community.
The Steinhardt study reports that the percentage of Brandeis undergraduate students who identify as Jewish has declined markedly since the 1960s, although lack of consistency in survey methodologies across surveys makes comparisons over time challenging. The Steinhardt report notes that in 1967 just under 60 percent of Brandeis students were Jewish while in 2016, using different survey questions and sampling frame, the study estimates it to be 38 percent. Understanding these trends is further complicated by the fact that the Steinhardt survey reports more than 40 percent of Brandeis students today do not identify with any religion. There is no doubt that increased and intense recruitment of Jewish students by universities across the country since the 1960’s has made it more competitive for Brandeis to recruit Jewish students.
Whatever changes there may have been over time in Jewish enrollment at Brandeis, we are committed to abiding by our historic mission, to providing a welcoming and uniquely important place of learning for Jews from all backgrounds—where Jews can be comfortable and safe and where they can pursue Jewish traditions and scholarship as they choose. Despite the university’s past success in sustaining an excellent environment for Jewish students, Brandeis needs to do more and respond forcefully to the increased competition from peer institutions to remain true to its founding mission as the country’s only Jewish-founded secular non-denominational university. This includes re-doubling our commitment to excellence in Jewish studies—second to no other university, expanding recruitment at Jewish Day Schools and Jewish youth organizations, increasing opportunities for collaborations and exchanges for our faculty and students with Israeli scholars and institutions, and supporting organizations like Hillel to invigorate co-curricular programming.
Remaining true to our founding mission also means consciously seeking out and welcoming students and groups who, like Jews in 1948, have suffered from a lack of opportunity resulting from discrimination and prejudice. It means creating an environment in which all our students can thrive and express their views freely and respectfully no matter how controversial. Given the demographics of the current and future student-age population, and the university’s goal of excellence, there is no “either/or” approach to admissions for Brandeis—either making a commitment to providing a welcoming and thriving community for its Jewish students, or strengthening its efforts to have a more diverse yet academically qualified student body. Brandeis can and must do both to be true to its mission and institutional goals.
Because of Brandeis’ unwavering commitment to its founding mission and values, its powerful connection to American and world Jewry, Jewish traditions and scholarship, and its history of and commitment to educating underrepresented groups, the university is uniquely positioned to be the place where the most complex social issues of our day can be raised, studied, researched, and debated in a respectful manner. If we succeed, we will generate new knowledge and offer a better, richer and more satisfying education for today’s and tomorrow’s students. This is an audacious task for sure, but so was the founding 68 years ago of an excellent research and teaching institution specifically created for those who had been excluded from the best universities simply because of anti-Semitism.
Lisa M. Lynch
Ronald D. Liebowitz