Brandeis University was founded in Waltham, Mass., in 1948, when other universities commonly employed quotas to exclude Jewish, African American or Asian American students from admission. Universities such as Harvard used subjective screener interviews and personality tests to try to detect Jewish applicants based on antisemitic stereotypes.
Brandeis was envisioned as a corrective to such repugnant practices — “a university without quotas” as one early promotional brochure put it, a place “where no barriers exist because of race, sex, color or creed.”
This vision of true equality was intended to be the university’s unique “Jewish contribution to American education.” Brandeis took this commitment to equality so seriously that, in a letter mailed to applicants for the Class of 1952, the university emphasized “no applicant will ever be asked to identify his religion or color because to do so would violate a fundamental principle of Brandeis University.”
Remarkably, someone who believed and affirmed this “fundamental principle” of colorblindness and equality under the law likely would not be hired to teach at Brandeis University today.
In the past few years, Brandeis departments have mandated that all faculty applicants write a “contribution to diversity” statement. The rubric for evaluating these statements expressly penalizes any prospective faculty member who believes that “it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued.” In other words, anyone who affirms the ideals upon which Brandeis was founded just 70 years ago need not apply.
Excluding faculty members who uphold the university’s traditional commitment to equality is merely the tip of the iceberg. In a complete reversal of its founding ideals, Brandeis has enthusiastically embraced the fashionable “diversity, equity and inclusion” ideology that treats individuals primarily as members of racial or ethnic groups when it comes to hiring and admissions.
For example, the Office of Human Resources promotes its affirmative action plan “that assures that Brandeis will actively seek qualified females, minority group individuals, persons with disabilities and veterans with protected status as applicants for positions where there is demonstrated underutilization.” If a job search does not yield enough candidates of certain races or ethnicities, it will be canceled or postponed. The university also employs an explicit preference for minority- and female-owned vendors and contractors.
When it comes to admitting students, Brandeis also expressly takes each student applicant’s race into account when making admission decisions, contrary to its founding promise. Last year, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions adopted an “anti-racism plan” focused on “tracking demographic makeup” to facilitate race-based recruitment. Likewise, Brandeis’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management employs race-based scholarships and other race-based policies in determining admission to its highly regarded graduate programs.
If you’re at all familiar with the higher education world today, these policies will sound numbingly familiar, as they reflect the same wrong-headed “equity” commitments that institutions now use to put race at the center of admissions and hiring decisions. But that’s precisely the point: When Brandeis was established seven decades ago, the university was expressly founded on anti-discrimination principles. Now, Brandeis sadly has followed the same path of stereotyping, quotas and discrimination as other higher education institutions — surrendering the very thing that made Brandeis different.
We can see where these policies lead: to open discrimination and racial stereotyping. For example, Harvard today is accused of penalizing Asian American applicants for subjective and racist reasons such as lacking “kindness” and “empathy” — the same thing Harvard did to Jewish applicants when Brandeis was founded. These accusations of discrimination have led to a constitutional challenge currently before the Supreme Court.
But Brandeis need not wait for the Supreme Court to act. It must simply reclaim its historic founding mission. Brandeis was established as a university without discriminatory quotas, where students would have the freedom to flourish as individuals, not as representatives of their racial category. Those who founded the university had it right. It is time to restore Brandeis’s founding vision — the fundamental principle of equality for all.
This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on October 24, 2022.