Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Art of Making and Resolving Conflict at Brandeis University

The Art of Making and Resolving Conflict at Brandeis

Dov Burt Levy

Good intentions, without real world savvy and straight talk, can lead a university — even one as good as Brandeis — into a mess that could have been avoided.

Here's the story: Brandeis's Inter-national Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life sponsors a class called the "Arts of Building Peace." It's about enhancing conflict resolution through music, painting and poetry.

This year, one student asked an art teacher who works in a refugee camp in Bethlehem to have teenagers paint images depicting their views of Palestinian life. The project's title: "Voices from Palestine."

These pictures, by students ages 14 to 16, became a 17-picture exhibition scheduled to run for two weeks in the Brandeis library. The pictures mainly show Israel as the vicious, aggressive enemy.

After a number of telephone calls and emails protesting a "one-sided," pro-Palestinian exhibition, the Center director asked the student, a 27-year old Israeli woman, to remove the paintings voluntarily. The director said the exhibit was causing more harm than good. The student refused and a decision was made by higher administration to remove the exhibit, just four days after its April 26 opening.

The Boston Globe jumped on the incident with a front-page story. Soon after, an Associated Press story circulated in newspapers around the world. The flap continued with letters to the editor and Internet blog reprints and comments.
The enemy now was Brandeis University and the charges were denial of free speech and academic freedom. The plight of children in war and conflict became a sideshow.

Then came the obligatory faculty petition decrying the university's action. The president of Brandeis fell further into the trap by responding with a plan to convene a forum "to explore how sensitive topics such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be best handled" and possibly bring back the "Voices of Palestine" exhibit.

Let me offer the Levy Plan for reducing the risk of this kind of conflict in the future. In short, what Brandeis's officials might have done.

First, instructors should be required to vet student exhibits originating in their programs before they are mounted in the library. In this case, the student asked a professor in another department to sponsor her. I can only wonder whether she expected the Center staff would not approve the exhibit as she wished to present it.

Second, once the Center director found the exhibit in place, he should have been very direct with the student, telling her that the exhibit, as it stood, and the way it was approved, was not acceptable, and not in line with the Center's goals of education, dialogue, mutual trust and understanding. And she would do the right thing by voluntarily taking it down. He did speak with her but, according to his own statement, he was less than direct.

Don't we know that some university students (and professors) live for confrontation with the university rather than resolution of social ills? How do I know? I've been there, done that.

This student, according to the Center's director, later gave a detailed, but erroneous, account of their conversation to a website which encouraged a demonstration by Arab students in front of the library.

Third, once the exhibit was up, disassembling it on a Saturday night was unwise, just begging for protest, newspaper coverage and faculty petitions.

Were I the Center or library director, provost or president, I would have organized, by Monday morning, a separate library exhibit of several dozen books of pictures and studies drawn by young people caught in war and conflict (Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Africa, etc.). The purpose would have been to show that many young people — Israelis, Palestinians, Africans — live in dreadful situations and express (what else can they know?) the narratives of their people. Such pictures mirror pain, but not always truth.

Call this besting your opposition by being smarter and faster, which might, believe it or not, lead to mutual respect and honesty, rather than the current disdain and contempt.

Now, that's a useful lesson for students and faculty who say they want to do some good in the world.

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