Below is the text of Jehuda Reinharz’s response to the Brandeis article in the November issue of Harper’s magazine.
In their November 2009 issue, Harper’s Magazine published a story entitled Voodoo Academics: Brandeis University’s hard lesson in the real economy. In addition to being factually inaccurate, the article is insulting to all members of the Brandeis community as its assumptions about Brandeis and the higher education sector involve gross mischaracterizations. There is a story behind their story and I want to share that with you firsthand.
This is in no way a “sour grapes” reaction to an unfavorable story about Brandeis. Once we determined that there a lack of journalistic ethics in the manner in which the magazine conducted its research and reporting, we aggressively fought against the publication of this article.
To fully understand and appreciate the egregious nature of this situation, we have provided, below, a timeline of events leading up to the story’s publication:
- We first became aware that Harper’s intended to write an article on August 31st when their reporter, Chris Beha, called Dan Feldman, Brandeis’s Vice President for Capital Projects. During that phone call, and in a subsequent email sent by Beha to Feldman on August 31st, Beha indicated that he was “working on an article about campus expansions over the past generation” and said that he was “interested in considering some of the capital improvements that Brandeis has made.”
- Beha openly admitted that his interest in the topic of Brandeis was the result of a conversation with his aunt, Ann Beha, founder of Ann Beha & Associates, an architectural firm that unsuccessfully pursued business with Brandeis in the summer of 2004 related to the new Fine Arts Center. According to Dan Feldman’s recollection, Ann Beha made derogatory comments to him that implied that Brandeis had demonstrated a lack of judgment and made a poor decision in not hiring her.
- On September 3rd, 2009 Peter French’s office received a call from Genevieve Smith, an editor at Harper’s, who was “fact-checking an article by Beha on Brandeis University’s financial woes.” She wanted to confirm some of the figures that have already been reported in the press, including articles that dated back to January 2009 in the Daily Beast, information that was inaccurate when published this past January. What is important here is that the basic rules of journalism insist that media outlets must make attempts to interview sources for a particular story before any story is moved to the “fact checking” phase. This was not done by the reporter for Harper’s.
- Upon hearing that Harper’s was in the fact-checking stage of an article without having ever spoken to anyone at Brandeis in any detail and was relying on inaccurate information from outdated articles, Peter French arranged to speak with the reporter and the fact-checker on September 8th and 9th. During those conversations, Peter corrected the inaccuracies that Harper’s was culling from outdated press articles and provided additional information and background. None of the information French provided in these conversations was used in the article.
Our outside legal counsel sent a letter to the editor of Harper’s on September 14 th demanding that editors hold the article until a thorough review of Beha’s reporting process and his apparent conflict of interest were conducted. In addition, our attorney asked that Harper’s confirm the story’s accuracy and ensure that other people at Harper’s reviewed Beha’s story.
In a final attempt to ensure that Harper’s would be using factual information for their story, Peter French sent an email to the editor on October 2nd recapping the points he had discussed with Beha and Smith. Peter received no response to this email.
The article is rife with factual inaccuracies and unsupported conclusions. What follows are some examples:
- Perhaps most infuriating among these is this: “What that $28,000 surcharge buys—the financial and social return on a degree from an elite private university—cannot be found in a classroom.” This is an insult to everyone at this institution. Our students year after year talk about the outstanding quality of their educational experiences at Brandeis and the exceptional and world class faculty here. My view is that these more than justify the expense of a Brandeis education.
- The article also states that “Over the past decade, Brandeis, like many of its peer institutions, adopted the American corporate principles of fiscal shortsightedness and growth-for-growth’s sake that provoked the current economic fiasco.” In reality, Mr. Beha sought no information—and from the article, appears to have no information—about the circumstances that led to the University’s financial plan and about the very serious needs that were the basis for the various capital projects carried out since 1999. Brandeis has been judicious in our decisions about capital projects and the reporter appears to know nothing about our integrated strategic plan or our campus master plan, which have been the basis for decisions about the financing and execution of our capital projects. In any case, our greatest investment, year after year, is in our students, 71% of whom receive financial aid, with a per-student average of over $25,000 in grants and scholarships. The faculty and this level of support for our students are the main reasons student quality has been rising year after year at Brandeis.
- Mr. Beha writes, “For Brandeis, that loss [in the endowment] amounted to roughly $200 million.” Mr. Beha cites the FY09 starting value of our endowment ($712M), but makes no mention of the fact that at the end of FY09, the Brandeis endowment had unrealized losses of $125.4 million (not $200M), and that in the first three months of the new fiscal year, we have an unrealized gain of approximately $44 million. This amounts to a Fiscal Year 2009 return of -16.96%, which compares with a median loss of -19.14% for foundations and endowments as a whole, according to the Wilshire Trust Universe.
- The article states that “Following the lead of universities with multi-billion-dollar endowments, such as Harvard and Yale, Brandeis shifted funds from low-risk, low-yield investments into “alternative investments” like hedge funds and private equity.” In fact, Brandeis has been implementing a diversified investment strategy, including alternatives, for over a decade. In that time, the model has proved beneficial through various economic climates. In particular, for FY09, the Endowment’s hedge fund investments reported an aggregate loss of 5%, compared to the S&P 500 loss of 17.4% for the same time period. Brandeis’ alternative investments actually had the effect of softening the blow from the economic downturn.
- The article also states, “Meanwhile, like so many American institutions (and households), Brandeis had been living beyond its means, paying on credit for a seemingly endless string of expansion and renovation projects.” The reality is that, since 1999, just under half of the cost of major capital projects at Brandeis has been gift funded. Only 43% of that cost has been debt-funded, with the balance from University funds that had been set aside for capital projects.
We recognize that the legal process for slander/defamation is an arduous task and one that is difficult to prove; however, we feel that some affirmative course of action must be taken to protect the reputation of Brandeis given that this article is likely to have circulation on the Internet far beyond the circulation numbers of Harper’s. We are analyzing our options carefully. I welcome your ideas and suggestions.
We have all worked too hard to bring Brandeis to a level of excellence far beyond our size. We are a great University and I will not allow anyone to denigrate our administration, faculty, students, and alumni.