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Babson atones for 1978 anti-Semitic incident

Babson College president Leonard Schlesinger  (center) publicly apologized to Brandeis Wednesday with the Anti-Defamation League’s Robert Trestan  (left) and Jeff Robbins.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Babson College president Leonard Schlesinger (center) publicly apologized to Brandeis Wednesday with the Anti-Defamation League’s Robert Trestan (left) and Jeff Robbins.

It was 35 years ago, but the acts of anti-Semitism still sting.

At a Babson College soccer practice before a game against Brandeis University, two Babson team members hung a sign with the letters “KTJ,” short for “Kill The Jews,” and a Jewish star with a cross superimposed on it.

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Babson players wore swastikas and were yelling, “Holocaust.” The next morning, a sign saying, “Happy Holocaust,” was found in the gymnasium.

The year was 1978.

On Wednesday morning, Leonard Schlesinger, Babson College president, issued a formal apology for the hateful acts the students committed.

“Public acts require public apologies, and we are now in the business of being very clear, that I actually don’t believe there is any time duration that is too long to address that wrong,” Schlesinger said at a press conference held at the New England Regional office of the Anti-
Defamation League in Boston.

Schlesinger said the 1978 incident was first brought to his attention in February by a former Babson student. Schlesinger and his staff uncovered documents that confirmed the anti-Semitic acts and learned more about the administration’s response at the time.

‘Although it comes 35 years later. . . I believe I have a fundamental responsibility, as president of this institution, to respond to what I have learned.’

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The incidents were controversial at the time, and Babson College administrators and students took several steps to respond: the athletic director and soccer players issued apologies, the Babson president wrote a letter to the college community, and the soccer team was required to watch a movie about the Holocaust and to attend a series of other educational sessions.

But Schlesinger said he was disappointed that the administration did not issue a formal apology or make a public apology to Brandeis.

“There was an institutional response; I want to be very clear about that,” he said Wednesday. “And that institutional response was not insignificant. . . . [But] it doesn’t strike me as an appropriate institutional response, either at that point or for today.”

In addition to the formal apology, Schlesinger wrote a letter to the president of Brandeis University, Frederick M. Lawrence, in which he called the acts “a source of great shame for Babson.”

“As I have come to learn more about these incidents, I have been greatly disturbed
by the administration’s handling of the hateful acts experienced both by the Babson and Brandeis communities,” Schlesinger wrote in a letter earlier this month. “Although it is some 35 years later, as president of this institution, I believe I have a fundamental responsibility to respond to what I have learned, including extending my most sincere public apology to the entire Brandeis community for the unconscionable behavior of Babson students.”

Lawrence wrote back, thanking him for the letter and for “your leadership in seeing the opportunity for learning and healing from the events of 1978.”

“On behalf of the Brandeis community, we accept your apology and appreciate the spirit in which it has been offered,” Lawrence replied. “We can agree that hatred of all kinds, including anti-Semitism, has no place in our institutions of higher education.”

As he learned more about the incident, Schlesinger did not confront the students who committed the acts more than three decades ago, but chose to look forward and try to learn from the hateful experience.

At the press conference Wednesday, Schlesinger announced that Babson is working with the Anti-Defamation League to bring an antibias training program to the 500 first-year students coming to the school in Wellesley for orientation. This will be followed by a week of training for faculty and staff.

Robert Trestan, the New England regional director of the ADL, applauded Babson for learning about its history and responding proactively.

“Hate and bigotry on college campuses are not just annoyances; they’re not just blips on the screen or incidents,” Trestan said. “But they’re a threat to the integrity of academic institutions, and they present a serious challenge to their ability to carry out their mission. And Len is a president who recognizes that.”

Trestan also emphasized that instituting this program is just the first step.

“It is not a one-shot deal, this is the beginning of a relationship,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a partnership between Babson and the ADL.”

Jeffrey Robbins, also of the ADL, commended Babson and said, “I don’t expect that it was an easy thing necessarily for Babson to do.

“This is an example of leadership — real moral leadership, real wisdom,” he said. “And the effect of Babson doing this ought not to be minimized.”

Schlesinger, who is Jewish, is stepping down as Babson’s president next week to spend more time with his family, he announced in December. He said both of his parents were Holocaust survivors, and his mother, who is still alive, lectures to middle school students about the Holocaust.

“One of the important agendas of Holocaust survivors is obviously to never forget,” Schlesinger said. “I’m a strong believer in the importance of testimony to ensure that other generations don’t forget. There’s no question in my mind that experience frames how I think about this issue. But . . . I’m a college president who happens to be Jewish, not a Jewish college president.”

Schlesinger said he is proud that Babson’s campus is far different now: The college says its students come from 74 different countries. He says that while some would ask why he is not letting go of the issue, he wants to speak out against the past and use it as a teachable moment for future students.

“We are going to be as ironclad sure as we can be, that the incidents of 1978 cannot and will not ever be repeated on our campus,” he said.

Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@
globe.com
.
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