The Providence Journal has pulled its financial support from the annual Providence Journal/Brown University Conference on Public Affairs, halting a two-decade partnership between two of Providence’s most important institutions.
The University was notified that the conference would not be continued in late October, when the chairman, publisher and president of the Journal, Howard Sutton, contacted President Ruth Simmons, according to Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and University relations. “Mr. Sutton notified President Simmons that the Providence Journal would no longer be able to provide funding for the conference,” Chapman said.
Barbara Nauman, director of promotions for the Journal, did not respond to a phone message for comment, but she e-mailed The Herald a press release regarding the cancellation. In the statement, she said, “Although the Journal has stepped down as a financial sponsor, the newspaper remains steadfast in its commitment to cover such important topics and events as the public affairs conference.”
The press release also quoted a letter to Simmons from Sutton: “The Journal is proud of its participation in these events, which have enlightened and entertained a generation of citizens. However, changes in the media business necessitate moving some resources to meet new needs in our core services.” The Journal has also stopped sponsoring the Rhode Island Statewide Spelling Bee, according to a Jan. 17 article in the Providence Phoenix.
Chapman said the University has no plans to seek alternate funding for the conference.
“The University provides other opportunities to engage with the community,” he said, citing today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture and the Stephen A. Ogden Jr. Memorial Lectures as events that are open to the public.
“It is unfortunate that it had to come to an end. The conference was a real contribution to the intellectual atmosphere of the University, and local community members benefited from the chance to hear interesting speakers,” Chapman said.
The conference began in 1980, when Michael Metcalf, then the publisher and chairman of the Journal, approached Brown President Howard Swearer with the idea for a single lecture at Brown to commemorate the Journal’s 150th anniversary, said Robert Reichley, then the vice president for University relations.
He said Brown came back with the suggestion of a serious annual conference on domestic policy, which would complement the foreign policy program that would soon come with the Watson Institute for International Studies. “In the earlier days, when we started it, we didn’t really know how it was going to work. The first one was a big success. The next one was even bigger. It got to the point where we ran a conference lasting two weeks,” Reichley said.
The first conference focused on the American political system, and topics in subsequent years ranged from education and media to the possibilities of democracy in the Middle East and American class relations. One conference even led to physical changes for the city of Providence – the 1992 conference, entitled “Who will save the American city?” helped inspire the renovation of Providence’s riverfront, Chapman said.
“There were a series of panel discussions on the topic from the national perspective, and that led people to think about what the possibilities might be for improving areas of Providence, such as the riverfront,” Chapman said.
Reichley, who worked at the University from 1968 until his retirement in 1995, said, “The idea for the use of water in a way that would be helpful instead of a nuisance was not (former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci’s) idea. He would love to take credit for this, but that wasn’t what happened. When something like that can come out of a conference, that is incredible.”
Past speakers have ranged from New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks to mayors, senators and specialists in their fields. “Many of them came for nothing, only a few wanted something,” Reichley said. “Many schools are paying big money for lecturers. We didn’t start out like that at all. We talked to people who knew people. We told them, ‘We are not asking you to give a regular speech. We are asking you to solve problems in various areas.’”
The conference is usually held in the spring, though planning begins in late summer and continues into the fall in order to secure good speakers, Chapman said. “It was a real collaboration between Brown and the Journal. Robert Whitcomb, the editorial pages editor, and I would get together, sit down, talk about ideas for the conference, and then present them to Howard Sutton, the publisher, and to President (Ruth) Simmons for their decision,” he said.
Once the topic of the conference was set, staff in Public Affairs and University Relations would begin the logistics of putting together the conference, such as publicity, media relations and making arrangements for speakers, Chapman said.
“The biggest thing was the degree to which people from the Journal and people from Brown got into it,” Reichley said of his conference-planning days. Reichley was first appointed by President Swearer as the key contact at Brown, while the late Brian Dickinson, then the editorial chairman and lead editorial writer at the Journal, was the main contact at the Journal, Reichley said.
Even after Dickinson was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Reichley said he continued to work on the conference: “When he couldn’t talk, there was an incredibly sophisticated computer that allowed him to speak to us about his ideas. He worked on the conference up to only months before his death.”
In recent years, the conference had been abridged. Chapman said, “The Providence Journal was the financial backer of the conference. Some conferences lasted up to two weeks. Over the years, however, it became smaller in scope.”
Reichley said the two-day conferences of recent years were not representative of the conference’s glory days.
“I never use the word unique, almost never, but this was unique in the country – a major university and a major newspaper getting together and doing something annually as a service for the community. We looked around, there was no other place this was happening,” Reichley said.
“The conference brought people onto our campus. It showed we were interested in domestic policy issues. From the Journal’s standpoint, it brought things the Journal does and reports on and brought that out into the open,” Reichley said.
“I seriously lament the loss of it and my sense is that things like that get lost when people stop thinking seriously and thoroughly about why these things are being done. This was not just a show, in our case it was part of our educational mission,” he said.