The “soft vengeance” of Albie Sachs

Brandeis Events, Brandeis University, International Justice, Law and Justice No Comments »

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Abby Ginzberg has made a terrific new film, “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.” It brings to life one of the great human rights heroes of our time, a Jewish South African who joined the African National Congress, became one of the principal crafters of the South African constitution, and then a member of democratic South Africa’s constitutional court. Sachs spent two long stints in solitary confinement in apartheid-era prisons, and he later lost his right arm and the sight in one eye as the result of a bomb blast in Mozambique in 1988, but his commitment to justice and his zest for life emerged intact from those searing experiences.

For Albie Sachs, the “soft vengeance” for the bomb blast was the triumph of justice and democracy in South Africa. Ginzberg’s film works splendidly on three levels. It is first a story of an special, vital individual whose open personality, sense of humor, and burning passion are contagious. Secondly, it’s a national story, reminding its viewers of the tremendous odds that South Africans working for democracy faced, and of the great triumph of their collective struggle.

Finally, “Soft Vengeance” is a story about what Sachs called in our discussion the “emancipatory” potential of the law. Sachs had grown up thinking of the law as an instrument to protect property and the interests of the powerful. As a lawyer in an activist movement, he came to understand how law can be used creatively in the service of freedom. Not only did he go on to play a part in the new constitution for South Africa, but as a member of the Constitutional Court he penned some ringing human rights judgments, including the decision that legalized gay marriage, the first African nation to do so. Abby Ginzberg was also trained as a lawyer before she started directing films 30 years ago, so she brings a special passion for the subject of “emancipatory” justice to each of her projects.

We were fortunate to have Albie Sachs and Abby Ginzberg with us at Brandeis University last week for a special advance screening of “Soft Vengeance,” the first on a college campus.  We at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life were pleased to be joined by the National Center for Jewish Film and the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice in presenting the event.

After the screening, Sachs and Ginzberg talked together about the making of the film, and the tug-of-war between them about how certain aspects of his life would be portrayed. “It may be your life,” Ginzberg had to remind Sachs from time to time, “but it’s my film.”

The screening took place on September 11, and perhaps there was something appropriate in this. Albie Sachs has had a special ability to transform personal suffering into a force for social good. He spoke eloquently about how, in the aftermath of the bombing, he had an ebullient feeling: “They came for me . . but I am still here!”  Human rights activists around the world are his comrades, Sachs told the audience, but they can be so dour. Why not, he suggested, seek both joy and the struggle? Hearing from Albie Sachs on September 11 was an opportunity for all Americans in the audience to think about the extent that we have or have not used the events of 13 years ago as a motivation for positive, productive change.

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L to R: Lisa Rivo, Sharon Rivo, Jules Bernstein, Abby Ginzberg, Albie Sachs, Dan Terris

On the Brandeis/Al-Quds University Partnership

Brandeis Events, Brandeis University, Higher Education 6 Comments »

I have recently returned from a five-day trip to Al-Quds University, continuing work on a decade-long partnership between Brandeis University and this prominent Palestinian educational institution. I was accompanied by my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser (English, and Women’s and Gender Studies) and Dan Kryder (Politics).

Our trip, scheduled months ago, was focused on projects for the next phase of the successful partnership with which we three and many others have been involved. Projects in progress at the time of our departure included faculty research exchanges, a women’s leadership institute, and curriculum development in the politics and English departments.

Because of the controversy surrounding a rally on the Al-Quds University campus on November 5, President Fred Lawrence asked the three of us while there to gather as much information as we could about the rally, its context, and the response of the Al-Quds University administration, and requested that we report back to him after we returned home.

As it turned out, Brandeis University suspended the Brandeis/Al-Quds partnership towards the end of our visit. Nevertheless, we were able during our visit to have a number of in-depth conversations with many key individuals, including Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, Executive Vice President Imad Abu Kishek, and members of the committee whom they appointed to investigate the November 5 rally.

Once all of us return from our travels and have a chance to confer, we will put together a report on what we have learned. The issues on the ground at Al-Quds University are much more complex than has been reported on blogs and in the press. These issues deserve careful consideration and conversation.

What we can say at this point is that nothing that we have learned during this period has changed our conviction – built over many years of experience – that Sari Nusseibeh and the Al-Quds University leadership are genuinely committed to peace and mutual respect. President Nusseibeh’s comments following the suspension of the partnership, published in the Times of Israel, show that he is continuing his commitment to those values and to sustained dialogue even when circumstances are challenging.

In addition, I have just been informed that the University has suspended Sari Nusseibeh’s membership on the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, saying that this action is consistent with the suspension of the partnership.   While I have strong opinions about this, this decision is not in my hands, since all board members serve by appointment by the president of the university.  Sari has been a member of this board since 2000.  Among other things, his membership pre-dates the partnership.   This is a good time to recall Nusseibeh’s forty-year record of courage, innovation, and willingness to engage in challenging dialogue, the marks of a man whom I know personally to be a stalwart opponent of hatred and intolerance wherever they are found.   Brandeis need not agree with everything that Sari Nusseibeh says to value him as an important member of the Center’s extended community.

Over the past decade, hundreds of Brandeis University students, faculty, and staff members have participated in a variety of activities with Al-Quds University counterparts with the goal of enhancing mutual understanding through work together on shared scholarly and educational interests. At the time of this post, Brandeis has taken down the Brandeis/Al-Quds Partnership website, so the detailed record of our many years of work together is not available. [Note: as of November 22 Brandeis has restored the web site with a note on the home page about the suspension.]. However, a short video and a brochure describing some aspects of the partnership are available, and I encourage you to take a look to get a flavor of what we have done together.

At the Heart of Brandeis: Remembering Larry Fuchs

Brandeis University, Higher Education No Comments »

 

 

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Professor Lawrence H. Fuchs, who taught at Brandeis for 50 years, from 1952 until 2002, died on March 17, 2013.  For me . . .and for so many others at Brandeis and well beyond . . Larry was a mentor and a friend.  A full catalogue of Larry’s accomplishments as a scholar, as a player in national politics, and as an activist can be found in the BrandeisNOW tribute published soon after his death and in his New York Times obituary.  These are my more personal reflections about the man and his part in the University that he loved.

Larry Fuchs was a skilled and inveterate arranger of human affairs, but I didn’t know this when I first met him in 1992, when I was a candidate for a position at Brandeis.  The word that came to mind when he first squeezed my hand was “avuncular.”  He treated me with such genuine warmth, humor, and goodwill that I scarcely knew that I was being subtly but distinctly manipulated.  There was a position open in mid-level academic administration, and Larry in his wisdom had decided that this was a good match for me and for Brandeis.  But it was going to require some heavy lifting . . .which in characteristic fashion Larry managed without betraying any effort at all.   First, he had to persuade this not-quite-newly-minted Ph.D. that a position in academic administration would be bracing and rewarding.    And on a separate track, he had to persuade the provost, future president Jehuda Reinharz, that he should hire to run a university division a young guy whose previous experience with budgets was a ledger in pencil kept in a desk drawer in a grimy closet in a Boston public high school.   I had no idea until years later how much shuttle diplomacy was involved.

By the time I arrived at Brandeis, Larry’s imprint was everywhere.  It is no exaggeration to say that no single faculty member had done more to create the institutional culture of the university.

The qualities of Brandeis that so many people labor to define today . . .Larry simply lived and breathed naturally.

The integration of excellence in scholarship with engagement in public life.  Who did this better than Larry, moving seamlessly between Waltham and the Philippines and Washington . . . bringing his penetrating analyses of American politics and diversity to his work in the Peace Corps and immigration . . . and then enriching his scholarship and his teaching with his experiences in politics and overseas.

The  Brandeis commitment to the Jewish people, on the one hand,  and a commitment to diversity in all of its forms, on the other.  Other people have found in these twin commitments a source of tension and angst.  For Larry embracing the University’s Jewish identity in the glorious context of American multiculturalism was not merely natural but a source of pleasure and inspiration.

Intellectual explorations across the boundaries of geography and disciplines.  Larry wrote and taught that way – and founded American Studies on along these lines – long before the rest of the University codfied this approach in thousands of pages of statements and grant proposals.

And then there were the stories . . . For every moment in Brandeis history Larry had a tale.  Larry’s stories were succinct nuggets of human ego and error — but never with the intention of cutting his subjects down to size.   Abe Sachar,  Eleanor Roosevelt, Max Lerner – the humor in Larry’s stories somehow enlarged and ennobled them, even as he painted them as flesh-and-blood individuals with understandable human weaknesses.

The Brandeis that Larry loved was a glorious idea, a monument to Jewish tradition, the intellectual life, and the American kaleidoscope that he so ably described.  But the Brandeis that Larry loved was also a comically flawed place, rife with insecurities and outsized egos and politics played as a bloodsport.

Well, who here would be surprised?  Everyone who knew Larry knew the sheer joy that he took in politics .  . at every level.  He made a mark in national politics, of course, through his association and important work with people like Stephen Solarz and Barbara Jordan and several Kennedys.  But he also had a keen appreciation of politics at a more local level as well.

Politics for Larry wasn’t something inherently smarmy or petty.  People, of course, could be smarmy and petty . . . but politics itself was both an essential contest of ideas AND the essential cultivation of personal relationships.  It’s natural that aside from politics Larry’s other great passion – and scholarly subject — was family.  In both the public sphere and the private, he understood that working intensively on the  quality of conversations and relationships was what mattered.

Larry’s legacy is everywhere at Brandeis today – not just in American Studies, but across the university in the qualities I have described already.  Thousands of students today benefit from his lasting influence, even if they do not know his name.  But for a few 21st century Brandeis students, the influence has been personal and direct, a passing of the torch to the next generation.  It was a day of immense pleasure for me when I was able to tell Larry that my oldest son Ben had declared American Studies as his Brandeis major.  And when my second son Eli was accepted into the Peace Corps, Larry managed in a shaky hand to sign a copy of his 1968 book, Those Peculiar Americans: The Peace Corps and American National Character, for Eli’s advance reading.

At the last visit that my wife Maggie and I paid to Larry in Orchard cove – just last month – Larry was very weak.  He couldn’t sit up.  He spoke in a barely audible whisper.  His attention span was short.  He dearly missed his wife Betty, who passed away late last year.  But his mind and heart were firm.  I held his hand and showed him photos of Eli in the remote village in Senegal where the Peace Corps had placed him.  Larry was not able to talk much, but as I showed him the photos on my iPhone, he pulled me towards him, squeezed my hand,  and whispered, close to my ear  “Be proud of him.”   That was Larry.  Not for him the more conventional formulation,  “You must be proud of him.”  No, Larry’s message was a command, an injunction, delivered gently but with urgency . . .BE proud of him . . . as if in reminder to take absolutely nothing for granted, not even something so conventional as parental pride.  It was Larry’s reminder that when it comes to human relationships, everything matters, and that everything good requires not just sentiment and ritual but effort and practice and thought and dedication and love . . . in public life, in private life, in every squeeze of the hand.

Social Justice: Towards A Working Description

Brandeis University, Higher Education 3 Comments »

Last night I told a group of Brandeis undergraduates that they should work on deepening the conversation about social justice on our campus, but that they did not need to hasten to “define” the term.

But today I’m inclined to disregard (partially) my own advice, if for no other reason than working descriptions can be helpful in starting conversations.

On my way home last night, I challenged myself to describe social justice in a way that was clear, accessible, and provided some boundaries.  There’s a litany of philosophical and historical literature on the meaning of social justice.  I don’t mean to enter that terrain.  Instead, I’m interested in some basic language that can help our campus community think more clearly, deepen its engagement, and work together more productively.

This means that I am more interested at the moment in social justice as a process than as an outcome.  In campus communities, this is generally how we use the term, to describe a certain form of activism, and attitudes that accompany it.  In other words, those engaged in the process of social justice may have different ideas about what constitutes a just society.  Those working under the banner of social justice may well argue vociferously about where they are going, while agreeing that they are all working within a certain mode of action.

To my mind, a working description of social justice should be simple and inclusive, while at the same time helping to clarify the boundaries.  It shouldn’t settle all disputes, but it should provide a clearer basis for argument.

So here’s a working description of social justice that might provide such a starting point for discussion:

 

Social justice:  Working with the disadvantaged to change society for the benefit of all.

 

This phrase encompasses a pretty broad range of endeavors, but it also poses four simple tests for whether some activity falls under the social justice banner:

1)   Are you “working with” others?

2)   Does your collective action involve “the disadvantaged”?

3)   Is your work designed to “change society”?

4)   Will your changes be “for the benefit of all”?

 

Let me elaborate on each of these.  I believe that these questions may draw some helpful lines that distinguish social justice from other worthy and important human endeavors (as well as distinguishing social justice from some unworthy activities).

 

  1. “Working with.”  Social justice is not a solitary activity.  If you sit in the library and write a powerful diatribe against political corruption, that may inspire others to undertake social justice work, but the writing itself not an act of social justice.  Social justice begins when you put your efforts alongside other efforts, when you talk with others, when you put yourself side-by-side with other people.

 

Furthermore, “working with” suggests a particular form of collaborative activity.  It suggests activity on a basis of equality and mutual respect.  Contrast “working with” with three alternatives:  “working for,” “fighting for,” and “standing with.”   If you are “working for” or on behalf of others, you may be detaching yourself from their struggle, as opposed to being a part of it.  Social justice may indeed sometimes involve “fighting for” others, but it is not always pugilistic.  Similarly, one may “stand with” others in a social justice activity, but “standing” is too passive a word to embrace the whole of social justice action.  “Working with” may be the best way to express the sense of collaborative action on the basis of equality and respect.

 

2. “The disadvantaged.”   It matters who your allies are.  You can work with others to change society for the better, and you may achieve great things.  But if you and your partners are exclusively members of a powerful elite, then social justice isn’t really the right description for your work.

Of course, “the disadvantaged” is quite a broad category.  It includes those who may lack advantages because of their economic status, their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their health, or any other number of reasons.

I’m a little worried that “disadvantaged” doesn’t fully capture the tone of mutual respect that social justice entails.  But I haven’t yet come up with a better word.   Some people would doubtless prefer “the oppressed,” and it’s obviously true that in many cases the disadvantaged are indeed oppressed.  But I would hate to see umbrella of social justice limited to those cases of explicit oppression.  Similarly,  one could use  “the disempowered.”  But power dynamics shift very quickly, and part of the point of social justice is that those who lack certain advantages may acquire power through collective action (while still living with the consequences of their disadvantage).

In any case, it seems clear that you can work for many important social ends without including the disadvantaged in your efforts.  For example, a group of wealthy women and men could team up to save a particular tract of virgin forest from a timber company.   I would argue that we could give that kind of work many laudatory names, but that we might not call it social justice.

 

3. “To change society.”    This phrase may seem innocuous, but I think that including it in this working description may actually make a lot of people unhappy.  Some will find it too mild:  “change” doesn’t necessarily imply the kind of radical transformation that many people who align themselves with social justice hope to achieve.  On the other hand, including this phrase draws a deliberate line between social justice and other important work, because it suggests that to “count” under the social justice rubric, your work must have a broader political purpose.

So one distinction here would be between “social justice” and “service.”   It’s obviously hugely important to meet the specific needs of individual men, women and children.  And one can and should be able to help people and address their needs without getting involved in social change.  So I would say that service without that broader political purpose is vital, but we may not want to insist that it falls under the rubric of social justice.

In other words, if you work in a soup kitchen preparing food for the hungry, you are performing a vital and valuable service.  If you work in a soup kitchen and also work alongside homeless people to improve city services, or to change laws that criminalize vagrancy, we might term that both service and social justice.

I realize that some people balk at this distinction.  Perhaps there is a better way to phrase it or talk about it.  But one way or another, I think that social justice has to involve change beyond its impact on individual lives.

 

4. “For the benefit of all.”  This is another seemingly innocuous phrase whose implications may raise hackles.   What I’m getting at here is that “change” doesn’t say quite enough – social justice involves change whose benefits are widely distributed.  For one thing, it means taking into account the unintended consequences of specific changes, so that promoting benefit for one group of people does not advertently or inadvertently cause undue harm to others.

For example, imagine that you waged a successful fight for costly but necessary services for a small group of people suffering from a debilitating rare disease.  If the powers-that-be funded this program by slashing preventive care health services to a large group of others, it would at least raise questions about whether this “change” really was “for the benefit of all.”

I recognize that this will become quickly controversial, and it starts to climb into the thickets of the different branches of ethics.  The point is not that the phrase “for the benefit of all” settles any particular question, but that it puts the question of broader effects onto the table.

The phrase “for the benefit of all” leaves deliberately open the question of what “the benefit of all” looks like.  It can encompass a wide variety of political ends and visions of the just society.   I prefer this approach, because I would like to see the “social justice” umbrella cover a broad ideological spectrum.  But others would doubtless prefer language that specifies more precisely what a better world would look like.

By the way, one helpful implication of this innocuous phrase is that it helps keep social justice separate from certain forms of extremism.  For example, a suicide bomber who kills civilians on behalf of an oppressed people might argue that he is “working with the disadvantaged to change society,” but it is obvious that his actions are not “for the benefit of all.”

 

All of this is intended just as a starting point for discussion.  I could poke plenty of holes in this myself.  But I offer it as a way to get the ball rolling as we at Brandeis try to bring more coherence, energy, inclusiveness, and effectiveness to the social justice dimension of the campus.

A Bold Opportunity for an American University

Brandeis University, Higher Education 2 Comments »

 

One day in the not-too-distant future, some courageous private American university is going to show the world exactly what its students know, and what they know how to do.

This school – let’s call it Ollie University – is going to undertake a heroic, long-term effort to prove its claims about its education.  It is going to answer those who doubt that the liberal arts provide any solid basis for future achievement.  It is going to answer those who question the value of higher education, in an era of $50,000 tuitions.  It is going to respond to graduate schools and employers, who say that they can learn little from private college transcripts where everyone seems to be above average.

For many years, Ollie has asserted to everyone who will listen that it does provide value.   Its students, Ollie says, can think well, write well, and analyze complex problems.  They aren’t trained in narrow technical fields.  They have skills that are transferable from field to field and will serve them well their whole lives.  Those skills are enormously difficult to measure, but Ollie is sure – really sure! – that its students are acquiring them.

But on this day in the not-too-distant future, Ollie will decide that there is a better way than simply asserting that its education is first-rate.  Over a long period of time, and with a great deal of effort, Ollie will take up the challenge of actually demonstrating in a comprehensive way how well its students can write, think critically, analyze data, cultivate the imagination, and bring to bear multiple disciplines and perspectives on complex problems.  Indeed, it may go even further, and seek innovative ways to assess how successfully it moves students to become global citizens, or to embody qualities it trumpets like social justice, moral courage, and the ability to work successfully in a team environment.

In taking up this challenge, Ollie will be taking some big risks.  After all, it is enormously difficult to assess the outcomes of a liberal arts education, and Ollie will have to take the chance that enormously difficult does not mean impossible.  But there is the risk that it will prove to be so difficult that Ollie’s best efforts can’t handle it.

There is the risk of being out in front of the pack. Many American universities have gone in the other direction – assessing their students less and less.  So there is the risk that students won’t necessarily like the idea that Ollie is going to assess their work in a rigorous way.

There is also the risk that it’s going to hard to get everyone on board with a big effort like this.  Some faculty members will find this prospect exciting, while others will see it as an existential threat to their independence and to the integrity of their institution.

And who knows, the doubters may be right.  A big effort like this, done badly, runs the risk of doing more harm than good, especially if it is done on the cheap and if it doesn’t respect the diversity and creativity of methods that the best faculty members bring to their trade.

These risks are real.  And that’s why when Ollie moves forward in full knowledge of those risks, it will be doing something bold.

How will Ollie do this?  I don’t know exactly.  I know that it will not be a series of multiple-choice exams.  Perhaps it will be some version of a portfolio process that has been used successfully for qualitative assessment in many educational institutions.  In any case, I can’t know the exact process now, because developing a good set of assessment tools will be a community project that will engage the best ideas from Ollie’s faculty members first and foremost, but also from its students, its alumni, and other strong thinkers.  It’s a project that needs to be undertaken with a deep consideration of Ollie’s goals and values.   And the process itself will be a creative, dynamic, stimulating collaboration for all of Ollie’s extended community.

When Ollie overcomes these obstacles and does this right, a lot of good things are going to happen.  Ollie will be saluted as a leader in higher education, and it will have a huge advantage in the “marketplace.”  Potential students and parents will flock to Ollie, because it (far ahead of other American colleges and universities) will be able to show them what they are getting for their $250,000.   Ollie’s graduates will have greater success in the job market, because the university will be able to show potential employers what tangible skills its graduates will bring to the workplace.  And Ollie will raise a lot more money, because it will be able to make a powerful and specific case about its excellence to donors and potential donors.

But these positive developments, wonderful though they may be, are not the best thing that is going to happen to Ollie as a result of this effort.   The best thing that is going to happen to Ollie is this: its teaching and learning are going to get even better.  Once Ollie really pays close attention to what its students know and know how to do, it will have an invigorating effect on what and how Ollie teaches.  After all, good teaching and good assessment go hand-in-hand.  As its faculty members and leadership learn more about students’ capabilities, they will learn more about their own strengths and weaknesses.  Ollie will develop innovative new pedagogies to match the dynamic sense of discovery that it wants to inspire in its students.

With this powerful assessment process, Ollie will also be perfectly placed to respond to other massive developments in higher education.  It will be prepared to incorporate on-line learning into its framework, because it will have the tools to assess how effectively students learn in various formats.     It will have the nimbleness to foster flexible and individualized approaches to learning, because the outcomes will be clear and visible.  And it will have a firm foundation for how its liberal arts methods succeed in a world where “the practical” often has the upper hand.

Eventually, other institutions will try to replicate Ollie’s efforts.  Its success will be contagious.  Besides, American universities are going to come under increasing pressure from politicians, parents, and the public to prove their mettle.   Lots of schools will benefit by these efforts.

But Ollie, by being first and making this a hallmark of the institution, will be the institution that benefits the most, because it will be the recognized leader.  Everyone else will be playing catch-up.  The investment will be significant, but the payoff will be substantial – and measurable!

Not every institution of higher education is well-positioned to do this right.  The personalized approach required will mean that Ollie will be on a relatively small scale – with fewer than 1000 graduates per year.  It will be a school deeply committed to the liberal arts, to teaching, and to strong values.  It will also work best at an institution at with a powerful research enterprise, where strong teaching and cutting-edge discovery go hand-in-hand.   It will be willing to do something bold, while at the same time seeking to preserve its distinctive qualities.

Who will be like Ollie?

A new framework

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This week Brandeis University released a “preliminary framework” for a long-term strategic plan.   The framework celebrates the University’s unique combination of being a small liberal arts institution and a major research university.

There are things to like here.  The document calls for renewed emphasis on individualized, discovery-based education for our students – more initiatives, as I understand it, like the Brandeis in The Hague, where our students get intensive exposure to the highest levels of international justice under the guidance of Professor Richard Gaskins.

It also calls for new programs in “Integrated Arts” and “Legal and Ethical Studies.”    I am excited by the idea of building further connections between the arts and the Brandeis value of social justice.  In the area of Peacebuilding and the Arts, Brandeis has a unique resource that is truly distinctive and which has helped spark visible change in communities

And I support the further development of a Brandeis approach to law and justice.  Of all the universities in this country that do NOT have a law school, Brandeis is already arguably the institution that has the most ambitious range of programs in this area, including the legal studies program, the Brandeis Institute for International Judges, and the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

I am also excited about the idea of the “World Issues Forum,” which offers the tantalizing possibility that Brandeis might become a kind of “global public square,” where big issues are debated and new knowledge created through the contest of ideas.   The Global Task Force, which I co-chaired did some work in fleshing out one possible version of this concept . . .and no doubt there will be further opportunities to develop this potential flagship for the University.

The Global Task Force also had some thoughts about promoting students’ global knowledge and skills.  We recommended that the University consider a portfolio-based assessment methodology to understand more precisely how well-equipped our students are to succeed in a globalized world.  President Lawrence signaled at the faculty meeting earlier this week that the task force reports will be made available to the Brandeis community in the near future.    These will provide additional food for thought as we join others around the country and around the world in thinking about the future of higher education in a rapidly-changing world.

Already some members of the Brandeis community have called for a new draft with more specifics and more distinctive features.  That’s a good idea, but I hope we don’t lose in the process some of the positive and important directions suggested in this first iteration.


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