A recap of the State of Brown address

Last night, the third annual State of Brown address was co-hosted by UCS and President Christina Paxson, P’19. The event began with UCS President Maahika Srinivasan ’15 delivering a summary of projects undertaken by UCS this year. Paxson followed with a speech on her own major concerns for the university, noting that she could not give “a comprehensive list of everything that happened this year — it’s a lot, you know that — and the issues we’ve been dealing with aren’t just at Brown, they’re everywhere.” Much of the Q&A section of the event focused on the topics that have been of great concern to the student body and administration this year, including mental health resources, changing the university’s sexual assault and harassment policies, and diversity issues. 

What does UCS do?

Srinivasan began by noting that many students might wonder the above from time to time and she appreciated having State of Brown to clarify their role.

A major goal for UCS this year was to increase support for student advocacy, allowing student activists to either voice concerns to the administration through UCS or push for conversations where they could express themselves directly. To this end, they worked with the Student Labor Alliance regarding the protests for rights of university mailroom workers earlier this year, and they worked with students from the Imagine Rape 0 protests on communicating with the administration.

This year UCS has launched several important online initiatives; wtf*brown (beloved here at Blog) allows students to post and vote on suggestions for the university, and more recently their Textbook Exchange has created an online platform to buy and sell used textbooks, tagged by the class they are for.

UCS has also worked with ResLife to abolish the suite fee for all students; while this year the fee was decreased, they hope to see it gone in the coming years.

The future of Brown academics

President Paxson noted that State of Brown allowed her to answer the question “Where is Brown going?” for the student body, half of which had not matriculated when her Strategic Plan was released two years ago. To that end, she started with a briefing on some of the points of progress on said plan. Her desire is to move Brown’s open curriculum into the 21st century, using technology to embrace the unique cross-departmental education initiatives that Brown offers. An Engaged Scholars Program piloted this year in which students to engage with five departments, and integrate off-campus work into their education. Paxson also expressed desire to “blast away” large lecture classes, envisioning a Brown which uses technology to ensure that the university only offers small, intimate courses.

Diversity in Brown faculty

Paxson stated that the lack of diversity in our faculty posed a major problem for the university. Currently, only about 8.5% of Brown faculty is of unrepresented minorities, which Paxson acknowledged “just doesn’t reflect our student population.” Paxson stated she wanted to double this number in the next ten years; although 16% still sounds low, “it’s going to take a lot of work to do it.” The university has also started a diversity post-doc program, and will be making an effort to focus more on doctoral education in the next few years.

During the Q&A, one student asked whether the administration would release a report detailing diversity of faculty in each department, concerned that “if they’re all concentrated in Ethnic Studies or Africana, that’s not diversity.” Paxson responded that this may not be possible, given the need to protect the privacy of faculty members. “I strongly encourage you to look at [individual] departments,” the student responded, “because 16% doesn’t mean as much if they are all in three departments.”

Preventing sexual assault and violence

“Everything we want to do won’t work if we can’t keep this campus safe,” said Paxson, emphasizing that the prevention of sexual harassment and violence was a priority for the school. She referenced back to the increase in crime on campus a few years ago that resulted in revamping the campus shuttle service, and creating BrownOnCall. Paxson stated that these were the kind of issues the university cannot afford to not spend money on, and for any changes that need to be made in order to promote safety, funds would be found.

Paxson thanked the Sexual Assault Task Force for all their work this year and stated that by and large, their recommendations would be put into effect. However, the university will need to work with recently hired Title IX Coordinator, Amanda Walsh, on “tinkering around the edges” of the Task Force’s recommendation. Because Brown is currently under investigation for Title IX offenses, there will eventually be federal recommendations on reforming our sexual assault policy. She noted that there is already conflict between the Task Force’s recommendation and those investigating Brown; while the former recommended students serving on conduct panels, the latter is strongly against this.

Mental health resources

The Mental Health Community Council was established this year and will soon be giving the administration recommendations on reforming mental health resources. Paxson stated that they were working already on removing the seven session limit on meeting with university therapist under the Brown healthcare plan, which was a top priority for the school. She noted that “the suicide only three weeks ago was terrible, just terrible — and reminds us of all the work we must do” to promote safety and well-being.

One student expressed concern about university required leaves of medical absence in response to mental problems, stating that students feel “persecuted” once the leave and that they “can’t come back.” Paxson responded that efforts were being made to improve communication with students asked to leave campus for medical reasons, particularly over summer.

In response to the Gawker article and #MoneyTalksAtBrown

Perhaps the most heated portion of the event was when questions were raised surrounding the Gawker article published on Tuesday, which quoted e-mails from Brown administrators, including Paxson herself, offering students recommended by Corporation members “special handling” in the admissions process. In particular, students were angered by an e-mail from Paxson that was sent to members of the Corporation, which can be read in full here.

In the letter, Paxson thanks Corporation members for their help in the admissions process, and asks that should they “learn of an applicant who you think will be an outstanding asset to the Brown community, please let us know as early in the admission cycle as possible.” She notes that “when you recommend a student… [their] application [will] get a close read,” but that “not all applicants recommended by Corporation members can be accepted.”

One student brought up not only this letter, but also the protests against the mishandling of a sexual assault case earlier this year, in which a student who allegedly date-rape drugged two students was “not indicted, and had a parent on the Corporation. So, how can you tell us that #MoneyTalksAtBrown isn’t true?”

Paxson reaffirmed several times that the Gawker article pulled quotes from her letter to suit their point, and that the website was not known for “reputable journalism.” She stated that what she “was trying to do in that letter is to say to them, ‘You know Brown, and if students come to your attention, write a recommendation,'” and that their endorsement, as “Brown alumni, 30 years in, who really know this school” would be taken into consideration.

Students felt concerned that the people receiving this letter were exclusively wealthy. Paxson asked that “when you talk about the Corporation, know who you’re talking about.” Her attempt to list several corporation members who were professors at other universities was interrupted by the point that they were still “elite” members of society. Paxson pointed out that this was going to be true of all Brown alumni, saying that “the day you get an acceptance letter to Brown, you are privileged.”

Paxson also tried to reassure students that there is no conversation between the Admissions office and those working in university advancement. “We’re selecting the best students,” said Paxson, “I’m not sure how to convince you of that.”

Despite this tension towards the end of the State of Brown address, it’s worth noting how Paxson began her speech. “I appreciate that Brown has students that are not complacent,” said Paxson, early on in her address, “even if that means protest against the administration… it’s a valuable part of this campus and I’d hate to lose it.”

Image via Deena Butt. 

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