Reflections on “Mission Drift?”

Last week, The Herald ran a four-part “Mission Drift?” series surveying the major changes of President Ruth Simmons’ tenure and the noticeable lack of philosophical discussion surrounding those changes. For Herald articles, the four series stories feature an unusually broad scope and unusually pointed analysis, and they’ve garnered a lot of feedback.

Most of the feedback has been positive. Some has been neutral. Some students have noted their surprise at what they consider the opinionated nature of the pieces. The degree of analysis and the strength of the conclusions certainly represent a departure from The Herald’s usual style, which tends toward straight reporting. The departure is intentional. The editors felt that condensing the last decade of University history in a useful and meaningful way required a significant amount of analysis and explanation, rather than just the presentation of bare facts. We hope our analysis has been helpful, and we consider it fairly conservative. We welcome alternate interpretations. 

And we’ve received some criticism, which we also welcome. In a 10,000 word-series, there will always be room for improvement. One reader considered the stories lacking in hard numbers to back up our analysis. The point is well-taken. While the stories do include plenty of data, they also include plenty of analysis. There are some conclusions that could have benefited from more exploration of the numbers. Another reader felt the first story lacked historical perspective. To be sure, issues like the need for money and competition with other Ivy League schools are nothing new. In the 1760s, Morgan Edwards, a Baptist minister, went to England to solicit money on Brown’s behalf. Unfortunately, a young Native American, Christianized by white educators, was in England at the same time collecting donations for Dartmouth. He proved quite the sensation, and Dartmouth’s haul dwarfed Brown’s. The series does not intend to claim fundraising and competition from other schools have become issues for the first time. Rather, it contends that these issues are now guiding decision-making — in ways both blatant and subtle — to a greater extent than they have during the rest of the half-century during which former President Henry Wriston’s university-college model and the New Curriculum defined Brown. This was the the same period during which the University rose to prominence.

Of the positive feedback, we are most heartened by what we’ve been hearing from faculty. Many of them have witnessed first-hand the entirety of the shifts the series describes, and they have expressed their approval of Mission Drift in great numbers. One professor even cancelled his class’s final reading assignment and instructed the students to instead read the series. But the feedback we’ve received from faculty has been private. Over the course of the year, many professors, most of them tenured, have expressed reluctance to express strong opinions in our pages for fear of alienating administrators, who, among other powers, hold the purse strings. But we do not think administrators at a place like Brown are out to bulldoze dissent, and we see these professors’ hesitance as overly timid. One trend the series identified as deserving more scrutiny is the diminishing role of the faculty in institutional decision-making. The University is undergoing a period of leadership transition, and the time is ripe for the faculty to join the debate about Brown’s future.

We encourage all our readers, especially, professors, to share their thoughts by emailing Those with more to say should consider writing a guest opinions column and can contact our Opinions editors at The last Herald issue of the semester comes out Wednesday, but we hope discussion about the direction of the University continues as long as there is a University to discuss.

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  1. lizbeth hardwick

    I think the main point is finally about jobs. If there are many academic jobs, then people will go into the humanities, and this was relatively the case in 1967 or so, colleges expanding rapidly because of Sputnik from the 1950’s and across all departments. That is not true now. And the areas that have managed to grow reflect student interest. So, about 18% of the economy is now about health care (about double for the West, double since the 1950’s, and one of the few areas relatively insulated from the recession), so a school of public health as well as an expanding medical school and many more undergrad pre-meds merely follows. You do not spend about 200,000 so you can occupy a park in four years. Ditto for engineers and the demand still for highly trained Silicone employees. Add to this something else, the school is much more international and while the sciences can be more easily translated into tech language, the nuances in the humanities do not translate so easily. So, how many Chinese students — now 10% of the graduate students, I think — are in the humanities? But, also, international students merely reflect the loss of jobs at home, the globalization of the economy, and the ability of many undergrads to entirely pay their own way. It seems like Brown is not Williams or Haverford, it is not a college, and if people want only a college experience, they should go to a college and not a university (and there are many, unlike what someone wrote, and the graduates at Brown do exist, what someone else wrote that the articles didn’t address). And the truth is for all the “growth” and “change,” this simply is not so true either. So the public health school has slightly more than a 100 people seeking a Masters? Is this the END OF BROWN with over 8,000 students? And the medical school, very small in comparison to a place like Harvard, has been about the same size for 40 years. What is different, certainly, is the amount of money now gotten from research, since that is where the money is, and a two-tiered way of teaching across the country, that research professors are a separate breed and often tenured and teachers tend more to be hired guns … though the truth is Brown has done pretty well balancing this problem. Are things wonderful? I don’t think so. Integrating international students into Brown is not easy, the culture changes. But then too — not mentioned — does Brown need to so favor student athletes with strange expertise in odd sports so that about 15% or more of the students can score significantly less on SAT kind of exams, and these people, often, are the 40% prep school people of legacies and money. If the article were truthful — why Brown has nothing to do with the Occupy Movement (since it is mostly the 1% or 3%) — it might address that the mean income for the country is 50,000 but at Brown something like 3% of students all below this amount. I mean if you want to get into 60’s stuff. But the truth is no one really wants to go there and the tenure of the articles seemingly, if there is one, is AESTHETIC. The writers bemoan the name changes on buildings or the new architecture (but you like The Rock from the 50’s? The Sci Fi from the 60’s or the Book Store??? from an egg-planet?), but if you are living or working in Livingston or ten other buildings or more — who do you think these people were? I don’t think the writers of the articles bothered to ever look. They had an attitude and that is what counts, right? I mean Fox, MSNBC, pompous or snarky or both, that is the tone. Very aesthetic. Oh, and I fully expect the writers to also check into student health under the pressure of making Brown GREAT again, since about maybe a third of the students now are on SSRI’s and the like, which might explain some human apathy also.

  2. lizbeth hardwick

    I’ll go on … If not so loudly this year (and Goldman is certainly a connection) then there has been recently a huge connection between student prep school athletes and Wall Street (versus the emo or goth people seeking their personal identity and going into the arts, which are also well represented by Trustees on Disney and other conglomerates … this is irony, by the way, a division of humanities). And it is not accidental that Nelson of Providence Partners sitting on about 25 billion and right above the heads of the homeless in Burnside Park gives the school a new athletic center. Pedal for equality. Slim down for world hunger. Well, check out the trustees at Brown, seriously, and you will find an amazing number of hedge fund kings and investment bank monarchs and captains of not industry but simply MONEY. How did Brown get this way? Well, it reflects the society, of course, and this even without Harvard’s Business School or Law School (but if your boss has a piss Christ and a dead shark, it is better to have played lacrosse). Aesthetics? Let’s see, um, The Office? A glimpse of Emily Blunt? Celebrity anyone? not aesthetics. If you really get serious about any of this, you might want to move to Mars.

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