In 2018, amidst the high school walkouts taking place around the country, I called on my alma mater, Brandeis University, to join a slew of colleges and universities and put its money where its mouth is. I—and I’m sure many other alumni—challenged them to commit to honoring their ideals of free speech & social justice in the wake of high school administrations cracking down on such free expression.
They rose to the occasion and released a public statement articulating their support for free expression and exercise of social justice—a core ideal on which our school was founded—and committed to honoring interview dates and acceptance packages based on students’ merits, and not swayed by fickle administrative politics. It even got picked up by Buzzfeed News and I made my social media debut—my Twitter handle at least—in a Buzzfeed listicle; I guess I can cross that off my bucket list.
Now, two years later, I called on them again to rise to a similar, if not more daunting challenge. And again, I imagine I wasn’t the only one.
As the Trump administration seeks to engage in thinly-veiled isolationist and racist policies—in the wake of a global pandemic no less—simple students have found themselves caught in the political crossfire. The administration’s “guidance” over not allowing foreign students to take online-only classes for the U.S. fall semester is yet another stain on a consistently tumultuous and erratic educational policy. It’s not only antithetical to everything that Brandeis stands for as an institution, but what we as a nation stand for. One would think that such a stark departure from core American ideals would be enough to dissuade the Trump administration from pursuing such a draconian agenda.
And yet here we are.
On the heels of Trump’s announcement of the new policy, Harvard University and MIT—two other Boston-based schools with which Brandeis is good-naturedly competitive—filed a joint lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against the Trump administration. In Harvard’s own words to CNN:
“The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness. It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others[.]”
The lawsuit itself expands further on this line of thinking:
“…for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impractical, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous.”
Why does any of this even matter? Why did I even tweet about it?
Well if you’re reading this as someone with any connection to Brandeis at all, you should be able to answer those questions on your own.
For everyone else, here’s why:
Because Brandeis was founded on ideas of equality, diversity, right to a first-class education, and above all, social justice. Indeed the latter phrase emblazons most every free space around the university’s campus.
In the school’s own words:
“Brandeis University was founded in 1948 by the American Jewish community at a time when Jews and other ethnic and racial minorities, and women, faced discrimination in higher education.
Brandeis’ visionary founders established a nonsectarian university that welcomed talented faculty and students of all backgrounds and beliefs.”
There, in the first breath of our school identity and history, is the commitment to being different in the face of adversity and acting as a tether—the tether—to being a socially just port in the storm. It’s no surprise that Justice Brandeis—the school’s namesake—adorns the central space by the Student Campus Center—the “green building” as it’s affectionately known to students. The indelible mark that Brandeis made on modern jurisprudence is now playing out before our eyes.
And in this moment, we as Brandeis alumni and community members cannot be spectators; we must be leaders.
When I called on Brandeis to step up to the plate in this game, I didn’t have a specific goal in mind beyond urging my alma mater to lead in the game from the start. Whether joining Harvard and MIT or finding a place similar to Cornell University, which has joined the case as a friend of the court and had this to say:
“This was wholly unexpected, and it is a senseless and unfair policy that runs counter to all that we stand for as a global academic community[.]”
Because in the end, this is not a game.
This is about who we are and what our legacy will be. I spent years at Brandeis majoring in history—I studied masses of it. From East Asian and European Medieval to Roman and American Colonial, there’s always one thing that’s true about history:
There is always a right side of it. And a wrong side of it.
It seems that the Brandeis administration is of a similar mind.
As I continued to tweet about this whole snafu last week, I noticed the Brandeis account liking all of my tweets.
Then I saw their comment pop up; a link to a tweet from the Brandeis account late last Wednesday evening—hours after I’d logged off for the day and busied myself with dinner and household chores—that detailed their full statement on the matter. The official post—appropriately titled “Supporting International Students”—basically boiled down to this:
“In the face of such callous [ICE] guidelines, Brandeis must act in support of our international students and those across the country. Today, we are joining with a number of other colleges and universities in supporting an effort by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to temporarily prohibit the enforcement of these guidelines…We are committed to finding solutions to redress the ICE guidelines.”
However Brandeis is named in the suit—either jointly with Harvard and MIT or similarly to Cornell and other universities—is more or less irrelevant. Semantics are just that—semantics.
The only relevant thing is that they—we—are in the arena, fighting for what we as students, donors, alumni, and socially just thinkers went there for. This is how Brandeis can (and will) continue to define itself as a leading university and community in the coming years; how it proves to the outside world that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Ivy League schools and similar institutions like Emory, Stanford, and MIT.
The suit came before a federal judge this week and it took all of five minutes (seriously!) for ICE and the Trump administration to cave. But I have no illusions; I imagine there will be other repressive agendas that follow. And in those moments, we as Brandeisians must see and meet these challenges head-on.
Because ultimately this isn’t a meaningless issue. There is no gray area here.
There is only what is socially just.