Today, The Herald publishes the first in a four-part series we’ve been referring to as “mission drift” around the office. Working at a daily newspaper, we see the changes of President Ruth Simmons’ tenure unfold bit by bit. It’s easy to cover a single decision, whether it’s enforcement of prerequisites on Banner, the introduction of an online MBA program or the creation of a School of Engineering. It’s harder to place those decisions in a broader context and evaluate them as a whole, but that’s what this series seeks to do.
Taken together, the changes wrought during Simmons’ tenure constitute a fundamental shift in what Brown is and does. For decades, the University enjoyed a comfortable niche within the world of higher education. It focused on the liberal arts and undergraduate academics, content with a more modest research agenda, and the New Curriculum’s bold educational philosophy attracted bright, independent-minded students. Simmons did not see this model as sustainable. She embarked on a major expansion of research, established a series of partnerships with institutions around the globe and involved the Division of Biology and Medicine in a broad-based effort to rescue the state’s failing economy by fostering a biomedical complex in Providence’s Jewelry District. The University now offers online master’s degrees; partly to attract research funding and partly to come into line with the other Ivies, it has created the new School of Engineering. For a university that has long prided itself on its undergraduate focus, this bigger, badder Brown represents a significant step in a new direction.
Today’s article tracks Brown’s evolution in recent years, from a school defined by former President Henry Wriston’s “university-college” model and the New Curriculum to one increasingly defined by Simmons’ Plan for Academic Enrichment. Tomorrow’s installment compares the campus-wide soul-searching that preceded the reopening of the Medical School in the 1970s to the quicker, quieter process of creating the engineering school and the proposed school of public health. Thursday’s installment will focus on Brown’s struggle to distinguish itself within academia and the extent to which our “peer competitor institutions” — essentially, other Ivy League schools — influence administrators’ decision-making. The final article in the series, to be published Friday, examines one burden that comes with the path of expansion Brown has taken: the constant pressure to get more money.
The series aims to identify the major shifts happening on campus, which might not be apparent to College Hill’s more temporary residents. It points out that major institutional changes carry both potential benefits and serious risks. Such changes require careful consideration and extensive, thoughtful debate. We hope you send us letters with your thoughts, comment on the online versions of the stories and talk to people about where Brown should be headed as it prepares to select its next leader. The members of the Brown community should all understand what Brown is and hopes to be, as well as the philosophy by which it operates.
The point of the series is not to say that the changes of the past decade are good or bad — that is for you, the reader, to decide.
Read the first article in the series here.