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I'm digging for FIRE

Post #1293 • February 11, 2009, 8:25 AM • 19 Comments

I recently joined the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is currently celebrating its tenth year of fighting for "freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience," as it puts it on its website, and fighting against speech codes, thought policing, and the caricatures of judicial procedure that take place all too frequently in academic settings. The newsletter that came with the welcome package in the mail informs me of their Red Alert List, "a distinction afforded to colleges and universities that act with severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students or faculty members." Lo and behold, upon this shameful list is none other than Brandeis University, where the president and board are attempting to remedy the school's financial ailments by turning its 48-year-old museum into a rummage sale:

In his fall 2007 course on Latin American Politics, Professor Hindley allegedly used terms that at least one student found objectionable. Brandeis has steadfastly refused—despite multiple requests—to disclose to Hindley in writing precisely what offended the complaining student(s). According to Hindley, however, he explained to his class that Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as "wetbacks." After a flawed investigation, Hindley was informed by Director of Employment Jesse Simone that he was guilty of making "statements in class that were inappropriate, racial, and discriminatory," and that he thus had violated Brandeis's non-discrimination and harassment policy. As punishment, Provost Marty Krauss threatened Hindley with termination and placed a monitor in his classes.

FIRE has received no response from Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz regarding its demand to clear Professor Hindley's record, re-hear his case, or even so much as apologize to the man, despite widespread support from faculty and alumni. Yesterday, FIRE connected the dots:

Anyone who has followed the developments in Hindley's case will notice the same characteristic disrespect for the input of the larger Brandeis community in the handling of the Rose Art Museum controversy. In example after example, the administration has shown a tin ear toward issues of great importance in the Brandeis community. As a result, it has paid a heavy price.

The above article cites (but oddly doesn't link to) an op-ed in the Brandeis student paper by FIRE's Adam Kissel:

The Rose Art Museum controversy is just the latest issue to put the president's judgment in question. With a declining endowment, donor outrage, withering press coverage, a sharp decrease in applications and extensive faculty and student resistance, Brandeis is only one or two steps from the brink of chaos. It cannot afford a leader whose decisions lack transparency and reasonable decision-making processes. Given these conditions, I can understand why tensions are high. But this recent string of incidents is not the first episode that eroded trust in the administration. ... Last year, Provost Marty Krauss put a monitor in Prof. Donald Hindley's classes to keep him from racially harassing his students. The problem was that he never did any such thing in the first place.

As Nat Hentoff reported last year for the Washington Times:

After an investigation, during which Mr. Hindley was not told the nature of the complaint, Brandeis Provost Marty Krauss informed Mr. Hindley that "The University will not tolerate inappropriate, racial and discriminatory conduct by members of its faculty." A corollary accusation was that students suffered "significant emotional trauma" when exposed to such a term. An administration monitor was assigned to his class. Threatened with "termination," Mr. Hindley was ordered to take a sensitivity-training class. With no charges against him, no evidence of misconduct given him and no hearing, he refused in the spirit of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom this university is named.

A passionate protector of freedom of expression in a series of seminal Supreme Court opinions, Brandeis wrote in "Whitney v. California" (1972): "Those who won independence believed ... that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are ... indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth."

When Ed Siegel wrote about the conservatives opposed to the arts funding in the bailout at Boston.com last week, he noted, "The one constant in all this is that art in America has come to be seen as a frill, by everyone from right-wing talk-show hosts to the trustees of Brandeis." Something about this sounded wrong. The famously Democrat Jews in famously liberal Massachusetts running the famously liberal Brandeis are right-wingers? On the contrary, it turns out that liberals make great autocrats too, given the opportunity and inclination.

Support FIRE.

Reference in title here.

Update: Brandeis saw fit to drop $20,000 on an external public relations firm, Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, Inc. The university is paying for it with a 10% cut to the salaries of Reinharz and Brandeis COO Peter French. The Justice responds: "Honesty, in this case, is a better policy than any PR wordsmith could devise."

Comment

1.

opie

February 11, 2009, 10:40 AM

"On the contrary, it turns out that liberals make great autocrats too, given the opportunity and inclination."

"Too"? Read "Liberal Fascism" by Jonah Goldberg. the path to Hell is paved with "liberal" good intentions.

The "wetback" thing is just another horror story in a long line. Imaging penalizing a professor for merely explaining a term!

2.

Chris Rywalt

February 11, 2009, 11:11 AM

Everyone's got a fascist inside them.

3.

MC

February 11, 2009, 1:42 PM

Here's another good quote from Justice Brandeis:

"If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

The Ed Siegel line you quote, Franklin, seems to me to suggest that he is precisely making the point that the "frills" notion spans the political spectrum, and not that it is confined to the right. He seems to be contrasting talk-jock-cocks with the nice-Brandeis-mice as polar opposites who never the less, surprisingly, agree on that point. Maybe it's different in context...

That word, "frills", brings to mind this quote from Robertson Davies:

"Culture is simply the way in which people live. The culture of the cave man meant sitting on a rock gnawing a bone. The culture of Germany between 1935 and 1945 involved making soap out of Jews. One of our difficulties... is that too many of us insist on thinking of culture as a kind of lacy frill which is attached to the edge of life, whereas to be worth anything it must be the whole fabric of life."

Opie, your incredulity at Franklin's "too" is a bit rich... there's a reason the book you cite is called "Liberal Fascism": to distinguish it from the right-wing kind, which, as everyone knows, is just called plain old "Fascism".

4.

opie

February 11, 2009, 2:44 PM

Well, yes, of course.

What's your point?

5.

John

February 11, 2009, 3:54 PM

This thread sets a new record for getting the word "fascist" or one of its derivatives on the table early.

That said, I can't agree more with opie's #1.

Fascism suppresses criticism of itself through actions from the herd. Though most universities call themselves havens for free-thinking, most of them employ powerful techniques to make sure all free-thinking is liberal. One example that comes to mind is flogging any male grad student who dares paint nude females with the term "male gaze" repeated at least 100 times.

Thus, fascism is as much a part of the liberal establishment as it is the conservative's. It seems more ingrained in universities than in red-neck bowling alleys. (I frequent both.)

One of the teams I bowl against calls itself the White Red-Necks and is much more tolerant of the blacks on my team than my colleagues at the university would be of any group that calls itself "White Red-Necks".

Another team calls itself Stimulus Bailout, demonstrating political wit that I seldom see on campus, where the only issue is what kind of BS project can they propose that will get some of the money.

6.

Jack

February 11, 2009, 5:08 PM

Fascism is essentially a form of totalitarianism, which can have either "right wing" or "left wing" trappings, but that's basically a technicality. Whether right or left, it's still totalitarian and still horrendously bad either way. As it happens, in terms of numbers of victims, leftist fascism (Stalin, Mao) has been far more lethal historically than the right wing variety (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco). Naturally, to the victims of either flavor, it makes no difference how many were killed or harmed by which side.

7.

MC

February 11, 2009, 11:15 PM

Moving on, back to art...

Say you found yourself responsible for an institution like the one in question, in hard economic times.

And, say you looked over at the institution's collection of work by, to quote one article, "such luminaries of American art as Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Alex Katz and Roy Lichtenstein." Ahem.

Might it not occur to you that, despite a rather expected outcry, actually selling such 'gems' as these might just be the most sagacious damn thing you could do? I mean, aside from the PR standpoint (which, as we see, is a widespread media disaster), it seems like a pretty sensible move, from both an economic and aesthetic viewpoint. Hell, you could re-invest a fraction of the proceeds to buy far better art at far lower prices, I'm sure, and the university could keep the change.

So, really, where's the problem?... Is it really just a question of bad office politics?

8.

Chris Rywalt

February 11, 2009, 11:59 PM

A friend of mine used to simply intone, "We fear change."

I never addressed the question of what the Rose Museum has in it; I never thought it was especially relevant. But now that you mention it, jettisoning any or all of those artists would be a fine thing indeed, and if one could make money on the deal, everybody wins!

9.

opie

February 12, 2009, 7:38 AM

As I mentioned on a recent blog, their shortfall apparently could be covered by the sale of a few choice works. This would get people complaining but it would be at a much lower volume and less damaging to the school.

So, yes, it seems that selling the whole museum is an instance of simple bad judgement.

Of course, Chris & MC, you have to understand that what we think is garbage they think of as the gems of the collection.

I have been around a long time and I have never experienced a time when incompetence in high places has been made so apparent through circumstances. It has always been there but has never been so universally exposed. It is historically extraordinary.

10.

Franklin

February 12, 2009, 8:04 AM

The Association of Art Museum Directors' guidelines stipulate that you can't deaccession for profit. Funds garnered through sales of art have to be used to buy more art. It has been suspected, although not explicitly verified, that Brandeis was trying to get around ethical and legal watchdogs by causing the Rose to cease operating as a museum.

11.

opie

February 12, 2009, 11:07 AM

Those are guidelines. I doubt they are doing anything illegal.

This matter has been a headline item at least since the Met Museum deaccesioning in the '70s, so I don't know eaactly what the legal implications are by now.

I don't think a private institution should be legally constrained from selling things.

12.

Franklin

February 12, 2009, 11:12 AM

In general, probably not, but if said institution acquired said things by donation with the understanding that they were going to be preserved in a particular museum for posterity, especially when arranged by last wills and testaments, there are good legal reasons for preventing selloffs.

13.

opie

February 12, 2009, 11:51 AM

Oh sure. But those are specific separate agreements. Whatever conditions they entail can be legally enforced, like any contract.

14.

John

February 12, 2009, 1:22 PM

I once worked in university fund raising. Every "Declaration of Intent" we ever signed with a donor contained an escape clause that allowed the university to ultimately do as it wished or needed to with the assets, and any scholarship, professorship, program, etc. that the assets supported. "In perpetuity" is always qualified because no one gets anything "forever". As I said somewhere else, "forever" is not for sale. Donors can't buy it, institutions can't pretend to offer it.

Accreditation is a prestige thing and prestige is one of the hard currencies in a university environment. However, if they close the museum down, accreditation for it is no longer an issue, it is not even a possibility. Besides, prestige is a mental entity, not a legal one.

If they simply sell one or two of their "gems", they will find it almost impossible to get donations of "major" artworks, whether said importance is real or imagined. People who own such works will look for more stable institutions that offer a much longer period of custodianship for their "treasures". The Met had problems, but it had and has much more respect than Brandeis probably ever will. So it easily navigated the crisis, but Brandeis doesn't have that kind of backup.

If Brandeis doesn't close its museum or sell a thing, they nonetheless crossed the line by their actions so far. Works that are donated to them will be of marginal regard at best, stuff no other museum wants. Monetary donations will fall off too. It might be a good place to start building a collection of new modernism - a proverbial win-win situation. They will get good stuff for their displays that it is not worth enough to tempt them into deaccessioning and overhead will decline (art faculty can hang shows during their lunch hours and the guard staff can be laid off). New modernist collectors and artists would get a venue for the fruits of their taste and labor. And a 100 years from now Brandeis might just get back its prestige for being so prescient as to build a collection of stuff that will look better and better as time passee.

15.

OPIE

February 12, 2009, 1:34 PM

Onwards & upwards with New Modernism!

(Don't forget the CAPS, John. We are a MOVEMENT).

16.

MC

February 12, 2009, 3:07 PM

This movement is never gonna take off if we can't figure out a way to prevent shitty work from being kept in museum collections in 'perpetuity'...

17.

John

February 12, 2009, 3:34 PM

MC, it is more a matter of getting NEW MODERNISM into the museums, than getting the bad stuff out. If it is bad, it will drop out of its own accord, first to the basement, then out the door.

Regardless, getting in the door is the primary issue. Anything that is inside has an advantage over whatever is not. This Brandeis museum is screwing itself up so much that NEW MODERNISM may be the only thing they can collect. (I'm exaggerating opie's suggestion for caps a bit.)

So here is an action plan: Every one of us agrees to donate our best works to them. We need to invent a way to make our stuff look valuable first, though. Perhaps tell a curator that if he or she curates the show, the museum can have everything that is included, which will be automatically valuable by virtue of its inclusion in a show at such a prestigious university. We could tie it somehow to Clement Greenberg who is having a comeback of sorts, and maybe even this Darwinian abstraction thing McFawn is toying with. Say something like abstraction and its intrinsic lyricism is a anticipatory survival response to the stress of the upcoming depression ... that aesthetic hedonism is the best alternative to the materialistic kind, and offers a reasonable alternative to destructive behaviors. And so on. This would be very timely and therefore enlightened and enlightening.

18.

Chris Rywalt

February 13, 2009, 7:58 AM

I was thinking I could make my stuff look valuable by putting a big ole price sticker on it.

19.

wwc

February 13, 2009, 10:53 PM

/delurking/

Nice Pixies reference Franklin.

/relurking/

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