A conversation with the president

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

As parents flocked to College Hill Friday for Parents Weekend, President Ruth Simmons sat down with The Herald to discuss a reassessment of her Plan for Academic Enrichment, recent changes in the dean of the College’s office, the University’s position on climate change and the state of academic freedom on college campuses.

The Herald: At a faculty meeting earlier this month, you said it was time to pause and reassess the Plan for Academic Enrichment, noting that “no budget can bear a limitless succession of good ideas.” Overall, how disciplined do you think the University has been in aggressively pursuing the goals of the Plan for Academic Enrichment?

Simmons: Well, I would say amazingly disciplined, given the fact that when you look at the plan, responsibility for different areas is dispersed across so many people, so many different offices, and one of the real concerns that I had when we started this was how to make that level of effort consistent.

I’ve been very gratified to see the focus, and I think one of the reasons that occurred is because we set real timelines, we gave visible responsibility to certain offices for following up on some of the recommendations.

There are hundreds – if not thousands – of moving parts in the plan. So one way of showing accountability to the community was to make sure everybody knew who was doing what and could legitimately question how it was going and whether or not we were following the plan. So overall, I think pretty well.

Has the University been adequately prepared to deal with contingencies such as the closing of the Smith Swim Center, and how prepared is it to deal with further unforeseen expenses in the future?

That’s exactly the question the Corporation asked us when we proposed undertaking so many different things.

Early on in the plan, we mapped out for the Corporation a set of alternatives if we discovered something along the way that was different from what we knew, so we had all kinds of contingencies built in.

We could stretch out some of the timelines over a longer period of time – we could delay the start of projects, for instance – and reassign capital, which is basically what we’re looking at now in terms of the swim centers.

We also knew that we’d have the option of slowing the faculty growth, for example. We’d have the option of delaying the implementation of some improvements in virtually every area of the University. So (the plan) was timed, actually, to add certain things along the way. We did not, for example, add an improved sabbatical program for the faculty right away. We are in fact just beginning to implement that.

In the example of the Smith Swim Center, which seems like both an immediate example and a fairly representative one, what are some of the alternatives that the University has to weigh?

One issue is, “What should we do in the interim?” It was in many ways a very controversial discussion. Some people thought we shouldn’t build anything temporary, some people thought it would be a dereliction of our responsibility if we didn’t, and there was an immediate cost attached to that. We just had the good fortune to have had a surplus where we could allocate funds for the temporary facility.

The bigger question of whether we would do a permanent facility and how to finance it was really folded into the capital budget discussion, and that budget discussion is currently underway and probably won’t be resolved until the February meeting of the Corporation, in terms of timing and how we’ll do it and so forth.

When it comes to a Smith Swim Center, your number one goal is to see if there’s somebody out there who wants to pay for it. And so we would be fundraising for the swim center. Secondly, there is the option of financing it through, for instance, a bond issue. The question of whether or not that’s a desirable way to do it because of the interest rates at the time – that’s a finance decision that the members of the board make as to how we manage a variety of resources. So there are lots of different ways to do it, the question of how to do it has not yet been decided.

Given the centrality the plan has assumed under your presidency and how much the University has already invested, is it unreasonable to expect any major changes of direction at this stage?

Part of the process that’s underway now is to keep a promise that we made to the campus, to alumni who supported the plan and to others. I just don’t know anybody who’s perfect enough to make a complex set of recommendations and to have them be the right set five years, 10 years later. So it’s always prudent to examine what we’re doing and to ask whether something has been missed, or whether circumstances have changed sufficiently that you want to alter some of the goals that you set in the plan.

I don’t expect any radical change such as, say, declaring that the plan was somehow fundamentally flawed. I doubt very seriously that will happen. On the other hand, I do expect people to say, “I wonder if we missed this opportunity,” and “Should we have had this on the list?” and “Should we add it now?” I expect there will be people who do that, if for no other reason than the fact that the composition of our faculty is somewhat different from what it was five years ago.

The Herald has reported that a number of long-serving deans have left the dean of College’s office in the past year, following Katherine Bergeron’s assumption of that post and subsequent restructuring of the office. Several of the departed deans are reported to have been fired or to have sought jobs elsewhere because of dissatisfaction with the changes, and present and former deans have described the current office as under-staffed and lacking institutional memory. Do you support the changes Bergeron has made during her tenure?

Well, Katherine Bergeron is an extraordinary person, and I feel very fortunate to have her in that job.

By the way, I thought (Adam Cambier’s ’09 Oct. 23 opinions column in The Herald, “We’re not on College Hill anymore: Dean Bergeron and the New Curriculum”) was chilling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an uncivil article since I’ve been at Brown. I mean, that wasn’t nice. Nevertheless, people are entitled to their opinion, but I think there’s a way to criticize offices without name-calling, and I don’t like to see us descend into name-calling.

First of all, she cares very deeply about the quality of services that students have access to. That’s number one, that’s what I obviously want in a dean – somebody who knows what kind of resources students have access to at the best places and is absolutely committed to making that happen at Brown.

When you start a job, when people see what your interests are and what you care about, it is a natural process by which people decide, “Well, I’m not interested in that and therefore I’m going to find something else to do.” That’s natural. There aren’t many people here in senior positions who are the same as when I arrived. And I respect that.

You could have leveled the same criticism against me, because when I was brought to Brown, I was told, “This is very important, we’re a great university, we need to do certain things in order to be more competitive. And we expect you to do that. And that means if you need to change some things, change them. If you need to hire some people, hire them.”

Making the judgment about whether or not you need somebody new in a position or making the judgment as to whether or not a new person will be better – it’s the toughest thing you will ever do in your career because you really don’t know until people are in their positions how it’s going to work out. So I’m very sympathetic to the fact that she’s had to make this tremendous leap, that she has made personnel decisions. But there’s no one who is ever appointed dean who isn’t given the right to do it and who isn’t told, “Your first obligation is to make sure that the office functions well and that you have the right people in place.”

I think this is a very rocky period because there are a lot of new people. … I think it’s always difficult, when changes are made and you’ve become accustomed to certain individuals. You know, I don’t like disruption at all. I hate it. Personally, I don’t like it. And I understand profoundly how people feel when so many faces change, and it’s different and they have to deal with new people. It’s human nature to find that disruptive. But if you take the longer view, I think it’s possible to see that there are some advantages to really having new groups of people come in and bring good practices to Brown.

When I am speaking with Katherine Bergeron, when I hear her stand up in front of the Corporation and talk about her excitement about the students at Brown and what they’re doing and how valid the New Curriculum is – which is the other thing that I didn’t like about (Cambier’s column): the totally unsubstantiated claim that this is a ruse for getting rid of the New Curriculum. … That was very disappointing.

But in any case, to hear her stand up and talk about how wonderful the curriculum is and the way that she supports student projects, the way she fights for resources for students to have to be able to do more (Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards), to be able to have better advising – it’s hard for me to believe that I’m seeing the same person that some people are seeing. I think she’s working very hard at it. I think that she will persist with that. I think she’s going to be immensely successful as dean. I do. I believe it.

Climate neutrality has been a big issue on campus in the past year. How do you think the University can and should make progress in reducing its carbon emissions with all the other commitments it has already made?

To me it doesn’t matter what the stresses and strains are. Part of the bankruptcy of U.S. policy vis-a-vis this is that it’s always inconvenient to do something like this. It’s always costly, it’s always inconvenient. And look how long we’ve stayed addressing this problem because of those inconveniences. It’s irresponsible not to have some kind of major program addressing carbon emissions.

Part of what I’m trying to get (Brown) to do is to raise our sights, to increase our involvement, to take this seriously and not just to do it on campus but to do what we’ve done in so many other areas of national and public life, and that is to take it outside Brown and then see if we can be a force for the kind of change we’d like to see in other places. My hope is that we will play a leadership role in that rather than just being a follower.

I think one of the biggest mistakes you can make with an issue like this is for somebody to sit in an office and decide what you’re going to do. The whole point of it is really to get everybody involved in it. So, what I’ve been puzzling over … is how we can move this to a level of general adoption by the campus community, by the alumni community and so forth.

Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10 is doing a lot of work around the world on this, and so one of the things that he has offered to do is to come and to sit with us and give us some ideas of some of the things that he and the Clinton Global Initiative are using in projects, fairly massive projects, around the world in different countries. He’s going to be coming to campus to talk about some of this in detail, and he promised he’d bring some of his technical people also.

In your first Convocation speech in 2001, you spoke of the University as a place for the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. Are you concerned that freedom of speech is at risk in academia in general, particularly as it relates to the Arab-Israeli conflict? How about at Brown? Do you think the University is currently a place where a sufficiently broad range of opinions are welcomed and considered?

First of all, I would say I’m definitely concerned about the state of universities generally and whether or not we have sufficient protection for freedom of speech. We have to be concerned about that. Once universities stop being concerned about that, do you know what they become? What would they become? What would we be doing here? Practically nothing.

In a frightening sense, civil society is shrinking. Powerful forces often cause that to occur, because it’s not necessarily all that pleasant to hear people criticize things that you believe in, to challenge things that you want to do and so forth. So naturally that’s the kind of thing that we have to be concerned about as universities.

In general, Brown is faring better than most of our peers in this regard. In a number of different instances, I’ve been able to go to pretty controversial events and to see Brown students tackle very tough issues, challenging the representations made by speakers and doing it in an entirely civil way, but absolutely withholding nothing in regard to criticism of that person’s perspective. It has been extremely important and also extremely edifying to most people present in those audiences to see the way that students do that.

We are not here to protect people from being wounded by speech. We can’t protect them from that, because it is constitutionally their right to speak. What we can’t do is ever suggest to anybody that because it’s unpleasant, because it is wounding, because it’s offensive, we should shut it down. That’s absolutely beyond the pale for a university to do.

So what can we do to make sure that we never get mired in self-congratulatory discourse? Well, the only way to do that is to work actively to bring people to campus who we know offer radically different or different perspectives.

Do you know many people who say, “By Jove, I want to have that person who holds heinous views and thinks I’m a worthless person. Why don’t I have him or her come to campus?” Nobody does that. So it’s very hard to get that perspective. When it comes to world figures, I think that’s different… Because we are obligated as citizens of the world to know what’s out there, right? And much of what is out there today is anti-American, much of it calls into question our way of life, our fundamental values as a nation. Should we hear some of that? Absolutely, we should. Because how will we know how to deal with the rest of the world if we don’t understand how we are perceived>

Earlier this fall, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger defended his school’s decision to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus, only to excoriate him while introducing the lecture. Do you believe Bollinger handled the situation appropriately? If the opportunity presented itself, would you invite a leader like Ahmadinejad to speak at Brown?

Well, you can’t be serious in expecting me to comment on another president, so I’m not going to do that. So let me talk, if I may, about the way I make decisions vis-a-vis speakers.

I try to remember most of all that I’m president of Brown. Like it or not, sometimes if I give an imprimatur to something, people take that to be Brown’s imprimatur, so I try to be very sensitive to that and differentiate between what is good for the campus to hear and see and what is good for Brown to be seen as promoting, acknowledging and so on. I would be concerned personally inviting anyone or sharing a platform with anyone who holds views that are inimical to what we value as an institution, because I see my presence and my role and my voice as being for many people inseparable from what this institution is.

So what would I do if there were an individual who held such views and I thought it was very important for students to hear that perspective, and, in fact, important for me to hear that perspective? Then I’d want it to be on campus. But I’m not sure that I would validate that presence with my own voice, whatever form that takes. So I actually am very careful about introducing speakers. I, by and large, don’t do it unless it fits in with my responsibilities as president or something that we are sponsoring.

I think it’s entirely important for departments to invite speakers that somehow are interesting and are perspectives that students should be able to criticize or to discuss, and I would never interfere with a department’s ability to invite someone to do that; nor, frankly, with a student group’s ability to do that. Whether I would do it is to me an entirely separate question, and one that I weigh very carefully.