I am disappointed in the vision statement the Presidential Search Committee put out for prospective presidents. The things they are looking for – excellent fundraising skills, focusing on academics, etc, – they all call for a technocrat. Don’t get me wrong, I think we do need someone with all those skills in office. But can’t our president also be a visionary? An inspirational, inspired figure? I don’t want Brandeis to steadily claw its way up the ranks to “best small research university in the country”, though that would be excellent. I want Brandeis to transcend these silly rankings and become the most rewarding, spiritually fulfilling, undergraduate experience out there. I want Brandeis to become a hub of social justice activism and scholarship. Brandeis should make a positive change on the world. Educating students slightly better than at rival schools – is that all we can strive for? Brandeis deserves better than such unworthy goals.
As a lead up to our reLaunch on November 2-3, Innermost Parts is posting a series of critical, long-form thoughtful pieces on where we are, what we’re trying to achieve, that sort of thing. I hope you enjoy.
What is Innermost Parts?
A critical examination in advance of our 2nd birthday:
I founded Innermost Parts because it was time to fight back. I had been on campus less than one semester, and things seemed dark. The ethically-challenged Union secretary refused to resign; the administration unilaterally decided to arm campus police; and the Student Union was too busy pouting about funding streams and arguing over who would pay for parties to care. It seemed that no one was standing up for normal students, and that power centers at the school were forgetting or twisting our shared values.
I decided to create Innermost Parts to articulate an agenda and point of view that wasn’t being reflected in the papers or union. A taste of the initial mood:
Those running the University try to humiliate ex-Presidents, shut down offending artwork, and abandon even the veneer of self-determination while autocratically playing games with the lives of students.
Yet our Student Union is no better. Kowtowing to the Administration, it would rather raise a protest about budgetary reshuffling than say a word opposing issues that deal with safety on our campus. Perhaps they are paralyzed with indecision. Perhaps they have been hijacked by a self-serving faction of Senators. Perhaps they are too frightened to assert their power in the face of an increasingly autocratic administration. Any of these excuses are unacceptable.
Innermost Parts became a mode of expression, a way to finally say what was on my mind. It has grown a lot since then, and I have grown with it. We have more writers, semi-regular meetings, and go to biweekly “Brandeis Media Board” meetings with the Justice, Hoot, and WBRS. We explain more, and opine less. We dabble in original reporting, and we created and host the Brandeis Activist Calendar. We’ve run candidates for Union Office and organized protests. This flexibility is the beauty of it all.
The problem of Brandeis civil society cannot be solved merely by elections. We cannot shove elections down the throat of a mostly apathetic and uninformed populace: with a typical voting rate of 30%, Brandeis students vote less often than the population at large. The newspapers, which are the first line of defense for this sort of thing, have their problems as well.
There are two Brandeis newspapers – the establishment Justice, and the ambitious Hoot, and they present the same sort of challenges. Both are under the control of an executive editor (elected by writers at the Justice, unelected at the Hoot) Both operate under the rules that have them write one
article issue for each piece of news and consider it “covered”. Both are prone to holier-than-thou, split-the-difference editorials. (Though the Justice has gotten much better in this regard). Both are extremely reluctant to challenge the administration: the head of the Justice recently told me that “the trust of the Administration is very important to us”. How can I trust them to report on the administration, then? Lastly, they are read by only a portion of the student body.
The student body, finally, is split into clubs. These clubs are fragmented, numerous, and rarely talk to one another. Great projects might be taken on in the dark, mainly because no one club knows what the others are doing. Each club wants to plan their own events, so a barrage of speakers and gatherings overwhelms even the most active students. There was no strong voice or “propaganda of the deed” promoting a culture of activism or awareness of Social Justice as a holistic movement on campus.
With a student body atomized in discrete clubs, and the newspapers failing either to interest or stand up for them, how can they be united for any task? The Student Union, the natural (and official) nexus of all interests and all students, is one hand paralyzed in the Senate, and on the other hand unaccountable in the executive board. If we can’t even govern ourselves, how can we realistically ask for more control in governing the school?
Pending revolution, a realistic goal would be survival: holding the administration (and faculty) accountable and advocating for a better future. Individual student clubs might be too small on their own to do so. The newspapers are afraid; too dependent on access to serve as the only check to power, and the Student Union is a wildcard: it could be strong, principled, and effective advocate for students (see the Jason Gray administration), or it could fall into the traps of either adopting too harsh a tone which alienates, or being too accommodating to do much good. We need another strong body, standing powerfully for student interests and whipping others into doing so as well. We need an institution that looks something like what Innermost Parts strives to become.
(The second paragraph has been corrected to clear up how internal policies (such as elections) work for the Justice and Hoot. The last sentence has also been rewritten for style)
Brandeis University is not structured to be a democracy, but the individuals inside believe strongly in that ethic. This contradiction produces tension and problems of Social Justice on campus.
As a private University, all power theoretically flows downwards from the Board of Trustees, but the picture is more complicated. They hire the president, he hires faculty and staff, and the admissions staff chooses students. At the same time, as consumers of the Brandeis product, students have the implicit power to boycott or complain about the product. Faculty, meanwhile, have over the years built themselves institutions and safeguards that magnify the implicit power they have as “producers of knowledge”. Low-ranked staff, such custodians, have none of these protections.
Yes, Brandeis is not a totalitarian dictatorship – as it would be quick to remind you, there is some history of students dramatically asserting their power over the ruling administration. However, the lack of a clear, agreed-upon democratic process for resolving disputes, and the (de jure and pretty much de facto) rule of the agents of the Board of Trustees leaves students and low-ranked staff with less power than they ought to have, and creates conditions for conflict every time there is disagreement.
This lack of democracy is manifested in more than just a decision-making flow chart. A large underlying challenge is the weak civil society among students. Our civil institutions are prone to being unaccountable or unreasonable, and our clubs (our standard organizational unit) are fragmented and balkanized.