Social Justice At Brandeis

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

The news from the academic world is not all good, shall we say?  Filthy rich universities continue to get richer, but impose total charges of $40,000 to $50,000 per year on students.  The middle class and poor get priced out of the so-called elite schools whose diplomas are tickets to big money jobs.  Asian Americans are improperly rebuffed by these schools.  A fair number of university presidents now make over one million dollars per year or close to it, while their schools sock it to the students and their families.  A commission on the future of education decries what is going on, but one ventures that the chances of change are small at best:  The elite of the country like things as they are and the elite, the plutocracy, run the nation.

In the midst of this comes a story that would be bizarre had we not as a nation absorbed the values of Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes (and, if truth be told, the Clintons too).  Brandeis University was founded as a Jewish-sponsored school in, I believe, 1948.  One of the reasons for creating the school was that, in those days, Jews were still largely excluded from the elite academic institutions, as had been the case since the late teens and early twenties of the 20th Century.  (Improper exclusion is why Asian Americans are sometimes called the new Jews.)  So, somewhat as the Catholic Church had with such institutions as Boston College and Notre Dame among many others, the Jews created a university.  It was named for one of the leading avatars of social justice in the history of the United States, Justice Louis Brandeis.  It was to be, and in fact was and is, very strong academically.  Its student body was, at inception, heavily Jewish, maybe nearly 100 percent Jewish, and Jewish traditions had a place on campus.  Over the years, however, the school increasingly became religiously integrated (and ever-more secular in traditions, I gather), so that today one reads that about half the student body is not Jewish.  The school has had teams in lots of sports; early on it even had a football team, coached by the great Michigan and pro quarterback Benny Friedman, but today it no longer has a football team though it has teams in lots of sports.  It has teams playing in the University Athletic Association, a league of fancy academic institutions, like the University of Chicago (which was a Big 10 powerhouse in the early part of the 20th Century), NYU, Washington University of St. Louis, Emory, Rochester, Carnegie-Mellon and Case Western Reserve.

Brandeis has long had a problem, though.  Students have long complained that an adequate social life is lacking.  Ohio State or Maryland or Miami or Colorado it is not.  So, from what one reads, a few years ago the school hired a new vice president with a fancy title and told her to “‘upgrad[e] student life.’”  Part of this upgrading, apparently, was to create better sports teams.  According to The Boston Globe, this new vice president, Jean Eddy, “believes athletics are a big part of student satisfaction and that winning teams help provide a sense of community and pride.  She made it clear to coaches and athletic staff that winning teams and top-notch recruits were required.”  Eddy says that ‘“athletics can provide a sense of community.’”  (I take it back.  Maybe Brandeis is Ohio State or Miami.) 

Once the new vice president arrived -- from that vaunted athletic powerhouse Northeastern University, no less -- the axe started falling on people who had been at Brandeis for 30 years.  Several of them were in areas other than athletics.  But some were in athletics and, recently, one of the axed was Mary Sullivan, a 54 year old woman who had been the women’s softball coach for 32 years and had started and coached the volleyball team for 25 years.  She was fired by the Athletic Director, Karen Sousa, a 1990 Brandeis graduate who had played on Sullivan’s softball and volleyball teams for four years.  According to The Globe, Sousa did not like the fact that Sullivan’s last two women’s softball teams had gone 9-27 and then 20-24 in the last two seasons.

The Boston Globe ran two stories totaling three full columns on the affair Sullivan.  One would gather from this that The Globe considers Sullivan’s story, or maybe the whole relevant situation of numerous terminations at Brandeis, to be of at least passing interest, or of human interest.  Needless to say, there are charges and countercharges about what occurred and why, about what the athletic and university dynamics are, about the actions and/or reactions of present and former players, and about claims that there is a change in attitude that comes down from the very top of the university.  But what interests me most are some very simple facts that nobody seems to have disputed.

Sullivan was fired a year before she could begin receiving retirement benefits, and with no medical insurance.  Because her husband is a self employed lobsterman, they had both relied on her job at Brandeis for medical insurance.  Now she is without a job and they are both without medical insurance unless they have managed to secure alternative insurance -- which was not mentioned one way or the other in The Globe.  It was mentioned that Sullivan had asked to be allowed to stay one more year, but her request was denied.  (At least one other “terminee” had been allowed to stay for awhile.  Whether others had received the same “beneficence,” The Globe did not mention, though it did indicate that, at other Division III schools, coaches who are replaced are allowed to stay on in other capacities.)

I have to say that what really got to me was the fact that, after 32 years, Sullivan was let go not just summarily, but without medical insurance for herself and her husband -- in this day and age, no less.  My reaction is, how could Brandeis do something like that?  Named for an avatar of social justice, the school was founded by a people who have long claimed social justice to be their special provenance, and was founded partly because these people were themselves being denied social justice at other universities.  And now this school just cans someone? -- just lets her go, cold turkey, summarily, after 32 years, with no income (except her husband’s, which may or may not be enough for the two of them) and with no medical insurance?  (Maybe Sullivan has managed to get such insurance elsewhere -- which does not appear from The Globe article to have been a factor one way or another in Brandeis’ thinking.  But maybe she hasn’t and, even if she has, it’s bound to be either pretty expensive or less adequate -- or both.)

Frankly speaking, what went on with regard to Sullivan -- and, for all one knows, may have gone on with others at Brandeis -- is not the kind of conduct that I was taught to think well of.  Entirely, and emphatically, to the contrary.  Of course, one learns in adulthood that the lack of concern for others shown in the Sullivan affair is generally the way of America.  It has, indeed, increasingly been the ascendant norm since the recently departed Milton Friedman wrote his article against being decent in business in 1971 or so, and since Ronald Raygun, followed by the Bushes and Clintons, took greed from a mere fact of American life to enshrinement in the pantheon of high American virtues.  But for a school started by claimed avatars of social justice, and named for Louis Brandeis, to act this way?  Disgraceful.  Just disgraceful.

As said above, I am not going to get into the charges and countercharges here.  It apparently is true, however, that about 20 people have been fired or left Brandeis in the last few years, and age discrimination is one of the charges being made in the Sullivan matter, although one sort of intuits that maybe the “problem” is that the powers that be wanted to put a new, younger, possibly more vigorous face on Brandeis, wanted to do this as part of making it a happier place socially.  As someone who runs a small academic institution, one is not blind to the fact, as no head of any kind of institution can be blind to the fact, that there can be people who have to be replaced if an institution or business is to improve -- although the problem with such people should be nonperformance, not age.  Of course, whether an academically oriented institution like Brandeis will improve by assuming a more athletic face through firing of long termers and hiring replacements after nearly 60 years of success with a heavily academic orientation might be subject to question.  But even if one were to assume that Brandeis is improving its situation that way, there is still the question of how one goes about it.  Summarily putting employees of 30 years standing on the street with no medical insurance is not the right way to do it.

There is one irony here.  To replace Sullivan as women’s softball coach, Brandeis hired a young lady who last year coached the women’s team at Mt. Ida, a small Massachusetts college, to a record of 13 wins and 26 losses.  This is not exactly the New England women’s college softball equivalent of hiring Jim Tressel or Urban Meyer; and what we have is the replacement of a coach whose most recent season record was 20 wins and 24 losses, or a 45% winning record, by a coach whose most recent winning record was 33 percent.  Hmmm.

Making the irony more delicious for those of us at MSL is this:  A few years ago, our law school hired for its faculty a fine young woman who at the time, in addition to her day job, also happened to be the coach of the Mt. Ida women’s softball team.  She won about one-third of her games overall at Mt. Ida, she says (it’s a tough place to win at), and one year won half of them.  So one year she had a better record at Mt. Ida than the new Brandeis coach had in her last year there.  But my colleague went into law school professoring, while the last Mt. Ida coach went into Brandeisian coaching.  Funny, huh?  I think my colleague got the better deal.

Two comments received by Dean Velvel:

From:  Scott Denny
Subject:  Mary Sullivan, Brandeis etc.

Larry,  this is a very thoughtful and and valuable article.  Brandeis isn't going to be USC or  (The) Ohio State University athletically so why not put some time and effort into cultural events, community sports etc.  Out here at UC Irvine, we don't have a football team but a lot  of kids play in intramurals and you'd be amazed at how many people show up to watch.  They have a good time at no cost!  Mary Sullivan must have been doing many good things  to last all those years.  I was a  good high school athlete but I ended up playing baseball for an abusive, mad to win coach and he took every last bit of fun out of the game for me.  Sorry for cliche, but winning isn't everything. 

Your article shows what happens when people lose perspective:  good, valuable people get tossed aside. I'm sure Mary Sullivan has had a positive influence on her athletes.  Remember when that used to mean something? 

-I hope you get a chance to interview or speak to her.  You have really given us a fine, very personal piece of writing that strikes a chord with anyone sympathetic to a dedicated employee.
Sincerely, Scott

From:  Anonymous
Subject:  Re: Terminating long time employees

Concerning “Social Justice at Brandeis,” the same sort of thing happened about two years ago at an elite university where I work. A female assistant dean was terminated 12 months before she would have been eligible for retirement benefits. Happily in this case, there was such a firestorm that she was subsequently reinstated in a different office for a year. I am not sure whether to feel better because this was not a cost-saving maneuver; probably the institutional brain trust just thought she was not zippy enough for the preferred youthful image. I’ll bet it didn't even occur to them that terminating this woman when they did would cost her the security of medical insurance and a pension for the rest of her life.

The larger issue these cases raise -- larger even than the age discrimination issue -- is the question of whether institutional loyalty counts for anything in universities as they try to make themselves more “businesslike.” If a university just wants to hire people to do their specialized tasks, without thinking that the institutional mission is any of their concern, well, that would be “sensible” and modern, rather like Wal-Mart. But people who remember their college years with warmth probably knew staff assistants or night watchmen or bureaucrats – or professors, for that matter -- who went beyond their jobs because they were proud of what the university represented. As the management of universities becomes “professionalized” and their employees become interchangeable parts, that way of thinking is coming to be regarded as sentimental, unbusinesslike nonsense. Something lovely, and human, and important, is being lost as a result.

This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.  If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at  Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

Comment On This Article
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)

Return to the Table of Contents

Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts

Harvard Square Commentary, December 4, 2006