Ra Ra Brunonia: Our University-College

Faunce House - June 2009

For those of you who have come to this school for the prospect of an “enclave of trustafarians and children of celebrities” who “major in drum circles and semiotics,” you may have skimped on your Brown education.  While academic offerings can teach you about the psychology of making decisions and your daily dosage of sleep (8.4 hours), this new column will give you a taste of the history you walk through every day and, hopefully, a new appreciation for College Hill, past and present.  As President Henry Wriston said,* “no student can walk the paths of the College Green for four years … without learning something from the appearance, something from the atmosphere that its buildings breathe, something from the way history looks down upon him…”

In christening this column, I’m choosing to start with a concept at the core of the Brown creed: the university-college.  This may be a concept you’ve read about in the Brown Orientation Guide, or as bullshit as that amciv paper you wrote during midterms, but it is the guiding force of Brown’s choices in the sphere of higher ed.  When schools decided to expand research endeavors to create new knowledge instead of passing on the philosophies of dead white guys, peer had to choose between expanding into research facilities and sticking to the culture of letters and classical education.  The tension between these two forces persisted until they were confronted by Wriston in 1946, when he characterized Brown’s balance as the “university-college.”  The model sought to offset the effects of pursuing excellence and innovation in the university by maintaining the community and fraternity vital to the spirit of a college.

This year, Brown chose to create its first separate undergraduate school within the university, the School of Engineering.  In doing so, it has increased its competitiveness for grants and become more dependent on exterior pressures from competitors (think HPY), government, and other agents.  However, it has also splintered the unity of the Brown’s undergraduate body.  While constant rankings have put further pressure on Brown to fall in line with its peers, the shift raises the question of where Brown should draw the line in the sand to resist sacrificing the intimacy of the undergraduate college spirit in favor of the accolades of shiny new things. In order to ask this question, we must also ask ourselves how much we value prestige – what did this school have to be in order to attract our attention and matriculation?  Does maintaining a competitive alma mater also mean changing it?  In wrestling with these questions, I urge you to sit on the steps of Faunce and look out at the Main Green – a haven of liberal education – and then walk up Thayer Street and past the yardage of Building Brown tarp that has embedded itself in the College Hill landscape.

*Side-note: In order to improve Brown’s legitimacy, President Wriston altered admissions policies to reject any students who were rejected from other schools.  Dick move but kinda baller

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