All Together Separate: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion on the Brandeis Campus

Leonard Saxe, Fern Chertok, Graham Wright, Michelle Shain, Shahar Hecht, Annette Koren, Theodore Sasson

May 2016

All Together Separate

All Together Separate: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion on the Brandeis campus is part of a program of research focusing on the identities of Jewish students and their experiences of anti-Israel hostility on campuses. Using Brandeis University as a case study, this study takes a broad view and explores a wide range of issues at the intersections of undergraduates’ racial, ethnic, and religious identities. The study surveyed Jewish and non-Jewish students regarding perceptions of inter-group relations, experiences of prejudice and discrimination, attitudes on contentious issues, and beliefs about the campus climate for free speech and critical discourse.

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Student characteristics

Racial/ethnic identity. Fifty-one percent of Brandeis undergraduates identified as White. East Asian students make up the largest group of students of color at Brandeis (including 10 percent who are East Asian American and 15 percent who are East Asian international students).

International students. Twenty percent of Brandeis undergraduates are international students, of whom 73 percent identified as East Asian, with an additional 11 percent identifying as some other type of Asian.

Religious affiliation. Forty percent of students described themselves as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Thirty-one percent identified their religion as “Jewish” —a plurality of students who identified with a religion. The proportion of students who identified as Jewish by religion declined from 36 percent among seniors to 24 percent among freshmen. An additional three to 10 percent of each class year considered themselves Jewish “aside from religion.”

Political views. Two-thirds of Brandeis students classified their personal political views as ranging from slightly to extremely liberal. Fewer than 10 percent identified as political conservatives.

Experiences on campus

Major concerns. Race, diversity, and inclusion are the top concerns of students, perhaps reflecting the #FordHall2015 protests on campus just two months prior to the survey’s launch. Forty percent of survey respondents listed issues such as “racial diversity/inequality,” “racial tensions,” and “Black Lives Matter” as the most important issues on campus. Thirty-four percent listed issues related to diversity and inclusion, such as “cultural diversity” or “discrimination,” which in some cases were also related to issues of race and ethnicity.

Social ties. Social interactions among members of different racial/ethnic groups are limited despite the increased diversity of the student body. White, Asian, and especially Black students, were more likely to form friendships with others of their same group than would be expected based on how frequently they appear in the population. Hispanic students were the exception, as they did not seem to have any special propensity to have mostly Latino/a friends, accounting for their prevalence in the population.

Racial prejudice and discrimination. With regards to experiences of prejudice, 60 percent of Black students at least “somewhat” agreed that there is a hostile environment toward people of color at Brandeis, a substantially higher portion than students of other racial/ ethnic groups. In addition, significantly more Black students reported almost all forms of discrimination, including feeling unwelcome in campus organizations, being the object of jokes or teasing, experiencing hostile reactions from other students to their classroom contributions, and suffering insult or harassment in personal encounters.

Gender and sexual orientation. Over a quarter of LGBTQ students reported being the object of jokes or teasing, or having been personally insulted because of their gender or sexual orientation. Heterosexual women were more likely than heterosexual men to report these experiences. The majority of all students agreed that sexual assault and harassment are taken seriously at Brandeis. However, LGBTQ students and heterosexual female students were less likely than heterosexual men to hold this view.

Religion. Among those who identified with a religion, approximately one quarter felt that religion is “very much” important in their lives. Religiously affiliated students who indicated that religion was “very much” important in their lives were more likely than those who indicated that religion was not important to report that they experienced harassment on social media, that their views and concerns were dismissed, that they were asked to share the viewpoint of their religious group in class, and that they were the object of jokes because of their religion.

Contentious issues. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was described as the most controversial topic of discussion at Brandeis, with 59 percent of all students feeling “a little” or “not at all” comfortable discussing the topic. However, only a minority agreed even “somewhat” that there is a hostile environment toward Israel at Brandeis. With respect to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, overall, only a very small proportion of Brandeis students expressed any support for the idea that universities should boycott Israeli institutions and scholars. Virtually none of the Jewish students supported BDS.

Open discourse. More than half of students (54 percent) disagreed with the statement that unpopular opinions can be expressed freely at Brandeis. Responses to questions about the free expression of unpopular opinions and the use of trigger warnings suggest that many groups feel that they cannot express their views on campus, including Black and Hispanic students, non-Jewish White students, and politically moderate and conservative students. All of these groups are minorities on the Brandeis campus.

Belonging. Three-quarters of all students reported that they feel they belong at Brandeis at least “somewhat.” Almost 60 percent of Jewish students felt that they “very much” belong at Brandeis, compared to 44 percent of non-Jewish White students, 30 percent of East Asian and Hispanic students, and only 13 percent of Black students.