New dorm back on the agenda

Course announcement bulletin to return, the registrar tells the faculty

By and
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Members of the Corporation, Brown’s highest governing body, have insisted that improving and expanding student housing figure more prominently into the University’s plans for the near future, President Ruth Simmons told the faculty Tuesday.

University officials had expected to abandon plans to construct a new residence hall in response to the unexpected cost of replacing the moribund Smith Swim Center, Simmons indicated, instead choosing to prioritize improvements in other areas.

At its monthly meeting Tuesday, the faculty also heard from University Registrar Michael Pesta that Brown will publish a printed course announcement bulletin for the 2008-2009 academic year, after determining that its elimination this year had exacerbated students’ difficulties with the transition to the new Banner online registration system.

“This will be known as the year without a course announcement,” Pesta told a faculty member who said he had heard “a lot of blowback from students” about its absence this year. The new bulletin will be available to students in April, in time for pre-registration for the Fall 2008 semester.

Reporting on the October meeting of the Corporation, Simmons said members of the Corporation’s budget and finance committee told her that improving the overall quality of Brown’s student housing needed to remain a top priority.

Because that committee has the final say in setting the University’s capital budget, Simmons said administrators will need to re-think their intention to put student housing on the back burner. Any formal plans to improve or expand housing will not be approved until the February Corporation meeting, when Simmons will provide the governing body with a set of recommendations detailing how more initiatives to improve student living spaces at Brown could be accommodated in plans for the next few years.

“My sense is that this group is very serious about this, and they won’t let go of it,” Simmons said.

“I suspect we’re going to have to do something that is more aggressive than we intended, but I have no idea what that will be,” she said later.

Simmons said it remained unclear how the University would accommodate an added emphasis on student housing in its plans. She added that she would “fight pretty hard to keep other items on the agenda.”

The Plan for Academic Enrichment – Simmons’ wide-ranging blueprint for raising Brown’s academic profile, first approved in 2002 – has so far focused University resources on an aggressive expansion of the faculty, introduction of need-blind admission and a spate of new building projects on campus. With the announcement of an official internationalization effort in October 2006, University officials have signaled their intention to add to that list a focus on strengthening Brown’s global character.

Recently completed construction projects have included the $95-million Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences and the 24-hour Friedman Study Center in the Sciences Library. By 2010, the University also expects to complete a range of other projects, among them a new cognitive and linguistic sciences building, a $55-million fitness center and a new Creative Arts Center.

A new residence hall has not been included among announced construction projects. But the University is currently planning to spend $23 million on renovations to existing student housing, Elizabeth Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration, told the faculty yesterday.

Members of the Corporation’s budget and finance committee – among them parents of current students who have visited other institutions while navigating the admission process, Simmons noted – expressed concern that “the quality of space and diversity of space in the area of student life was much better at most of our peers,” Simmons said. Their message was clear, she added: “It would be a serious mistake not to attend to that in the nearer term.”

Student leaders familiar with the University’s plans told The Herald last month that the administrators planned to slow or abandon student housing projects due to the need to generate funds for a new swim center. But University officials said no plans for how to accommodate a swim center in the budget had been finalized.

At the meeting, Simmons seemed to confirm that administrators had planned to set aside major housing improvements, at least for the next several years.

“If the Smith Swim Center had not failed, student housing would have been on the list,” she told the faculty.

Huidekoper said at the meeting that “we felt we had to back something off.”

Despite indicating her preference for prioritizing other projects, Simmons said student spaces at Brown were in many ways lacking, despite some recent efforts to improve them.

Brown’s efforts to keep pace with peer schools in student living spaces has so far involved “digging ourselves out of a hole,” she told the faculty. “Getting to that next stage is hard.”

The planned renovation of Faunce House to convert it into the Stephen Robert Campus Center, which could be completed by the end of the 2008-2009 academic year, “will help a bit” in improving student space, Simmons said. But the University’s ultimate goal is to be able to house more than the current 80 percent of students who live on campus and improve the overall quality of housing at Brown.

Articulating some of the problems with current student spaces on campus, Simmons cited the ongoing use of converted common spaces for housing.

“I heard recently that in Keeney, so many of the common spaces are being taken up for housing,” Simmons said. “The students are now being consigned to gathering in the hallways.”

“Some residences are just not in good shape,” she added.

With the debate over University priorities heating up, the faculty also heard from Associate Professor of Psychology Ruth Colwill, the chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, who said the FEC has begun to receive feedback from faculty as part of a reassessment of the Plan for Academic Enrichment that Simmons announced at the October faculty meeting.

Simmons has asked various University constituencies, including faculty and alumni, to evaluate the plan and consider what adjustments could be made as the campaign moves forward.

Among the concerns faculty had expressed, Colwill said, is a desire for increased funding for undergraduate research and for science education. Some faculty expressed a wish to see progress in the planning of a science resource center, she said.

The science resource center was the central recommendation of the Undergraduate Science Education Committee, whose report was finished over the summer.

Many faculty had also mentioned a need for more graduate student fellowships to support the increasing size of the faculty, Colwill said. Some had also responded that it is too difficult to get funding for interdisciplinary initiatives, she said.

She encouraged faculty to continue to provide feedback, saying that if they were unhappy with the current balance of the University’s priorities, “This is an opportunity to at least make a suggestion about how that balance might be restored.”

Colwill also commended Simmons for her “courage” in soliciting faculty opinion at this point in the campaign and for promising not to “filter” any of the ideas before the faculty could discuss them. It would have been easy to “plow forward” without asking for feedback, Colwill said.

In addition to her comments about the Plan for Academic Enrichment, Simmons told the faculty that in a private session with Corporation members at its meeting last month, she had been asked about issues that have arisen elsewhere in higher education. Those included efforts by a group of conservative alums at Dartmouth College to influence university policy and the controversy that arose around a speech given by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University earlier this fall.

Simmons described the Dartmouth alums’ effort, which has included trying to gain seats on the University’s governing board, as “a very public and, I think, a very divisive campaign” that had negatively affected the campus and alumni giving.

On Ahmadinejad, she echoed remarks she made last month in an interview with The Herald, explaining that she views her role as “less to join every debate than to assure that this kind of exchange can take place.” She said she is cautious about introducing speakers – as Columbia President Lee Bollinger did Ahmadinejad – because her own actions are “inextricably entangled” with official University policy in some people’s minds.

The faculty also heard a report from Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 , in which he outlined a range of statistics relating to Brown’s academic standing, especially in comparison to peer schools. The slides he used were the same as those he used in his presentation to the Corporation’s Academic Affairs Committee in October, according to a label on the first slide.

65 percent of the 122 new faculty positions outlined in the Plan for Academic Enrichment have been filled to date, Kertzer said. As a result, though Brown’s position in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings has been mostly stable, it has improved in the category of faculty resources, one of the factors used in computing the overall ranking. The University went from 27th nationally in 2000 to 18th in 2008.

However, while the faculty-to-student ratio has correspondingly decreased in recent years, Brown’s position has not improved relative to peer schools, Kertzer said, because other schools are also improving.

Additionally, Kertzer said, the University has improved to 24th in the category of average expenditure per student, another factor used in computing the overall ranking, from 31st in 2000.

Kertzer expressed some concern over statistics showing that total research grants awarded to the University were not increasing as much as officials had hoped, especially with the recent completion of Frank Hall, a 170,000 square foot research facility.

“There’s some feeling in the Corporation that, ‘Well, we’ve provided all these research facilities, where are the results?’ ” Kertzer said. He cited stagnant or even decreasing federal funding nationally from the National Institutes of Health as a reason total grants were not rapidly increasing.

Kertzer also said the implementation of a five-year guarantee of support for graduate students had positively affected both the numbers of applicants to the Graduate School and Brown’s selectivity in choosing from among them.

The Grad School had an overall acceptance rate of 16 percent in 2007-2008, he said, down from 27 percent in 2001-2002. He also noted that the MCAT scores of Brown medical students were comparable to those of students at Yale University and other peer institutions.

The meeting was not without its lighter moments. When asked a question by a faculty member at one point, Simmons seemed to pause, then shared an unrelated anecdote that she said had unexpectedly “popped into my head.”

Simmons said she had encountered a Brown student while at the St. Louis airport earlier this year, and the student informed her that he had never heard her speak, much to Simmons’ surprise.

“How could that be?” Simmons said she asked the student.

His response: “Oh, I’m a computer science student.”

The unprompted recollection drew hearty laughter from the several dozen faculty scattered throughout Salomon 001, and from Simmons herself.