President Ruth Simmons used her Spring Semester Opening Address last night to discuss freedom of expression and how the University at large, and students in particular, can improve the state of civil discourse at Brown.
Simmons also announced that a budget to be presented to the Corporation later this month includes a provision for financial aid for Resumed Undergraduate Education and transfer students, but she did not detail the plan.
“If approved by the Corporation, we will be on our way to providing … more financial aid for RUE students and financial aid for transfer students,” Simmons said after she had concluded her prepared remarks.
After her speech, which was sponsored by the Undergraduate Council of Students and delivered in a half-full Salomon 101, Simmons responded to students’ questions on issues ranging from the ROTC to the impact of faculty sharing political opinions in class, to what role the University should play with respect to Hope High School.
Simmons began by telling the audience that one of the questions she receives most frequently when visiting Brown alums and parents around the country is, “What is the University doing about the lack of diversity of opinion on campus?” She said that students on campus of all political stripes have told her of “a chilling effect caused by the dominance of certain voices on the spectrum of moral and political thought.”
Such a chilling effect is detrimental to education and intellectual inquiry because “we are often creatures of habit when it comes to learning,” Simmons said.
“Familiar and appetizing offerings can certainly be a pleasing dimension of learning, but too much repetition of what we desire to hear can become intellectually debilitating,” she said.
As for concrete actions the University will take to improve civil discourse, Simmons pointed to the forthcoming Brown University Community Council, which will be composed of faculty, students, staff and alumni and will serve as a “standing platform” to discuss “issues of importance to our community.” She also announced the creation of a fund that will be devoted to bringing a wider variety of speakers to campus and will be open to requests submitted by students and faculty.
Simmons posed several questions she said should be addressed without hesitation, such as whether Brown is “suppressing expression, limiting debate (and) fostering hostility to particular ideas and different perspectives.”
She asked, “Why do so many hold up Brown as an example of the way that universities today circumscribe free expression?”
Simmons said a reasoned challenge to a perspective is “the most important obligation of scholarship” and the duty to enter debates lies with students themselves.
“Unchallenged opinion is a dark place that must be exposed to light,” she said.
Connecting Brown’s experience to political and intellectual discussion on a national level, Simmons addressed “to what extent … the erosion of civil discourse in the country at large (is) responsible for our own concerns about freedom of expression.”
She pointed to the “painfully truncated debate around the war in Iraq, the public policy debates around affirmative action (and) indeed every major national issue in recent times” as exposing anew “the extent to which public discourse in American society has lagged behind other advances.”
Difficulties with civil discourse arise in part, she said, because “we rarely learn how to exercise this most important of constitutional rights.” Simmons laid out eight “rules of engagement” to make a better environment for the discussion and debate of ideas.
She encouraged students to “avoid personal attacks,” “accord respect for the right of all interlocutors to respond” and “recognize that arguing a position in opposition to your own is a legitimate and desirable strategy of debate.”
She added that through the new Community Council, “Our aim is to model … the kind of civic debate and conflict resolution we would like to see in the country at large.” To that end, Simmons said she would ask faculty leaders to produce a report for the Community Council that will explore “the climate for open debate on the campus” and suggest any remedies for improving students’ “perceived sense of freedom … with regard to expression and debate.”
In the question-and-answer session following the speech, Danny Doncan ’05 asked Simmons about the impact of faculty sharing their opinions and political positions in classes.
Simmons said though freedom of expression must apply to all, including faculty, “there is a relationship of power that exists in the classroom.” She said her advice to professors would be “to ensure that every student feels empowered to enter into debate.”
“One thing that’s very hard for us to do as faculty is really (to) withhold enthusiasm for a subject. … I remember when I was first starting as a faculty member, I discovered that the more I talked in class, the less the students did.”
Sushil Jacob ’05 asked Simmons about the University’s position on Ward 7 City Councilman John Igliozzi’s proposal that the city break up Hope High School and Brown run one of the new, smaller schools.
Simmons said she did not think the University was equipped to run a secondary school.
“First of all, a lot of people believe it’s easy to run a school,” she said. “It isn’t.”
She added, “The thing that concerns me most about people with ideas of how to reform the school is that they don’t understand that, fundamentally, bringing in outsiders to run the school is not the answer.”
Brian McGuirk ’06 asked Simmons about bringing ROTC back to campus, saying he thought Brown students could have a positive impact on the military. Simmons referred the question to Dean of the College Paul Armstrong, who has researched why the faculty originally voted ROTC off campus in the early 1970s.
Armstrong said the faculty was unable to accept the Department of Defense requirements that ROTC instructors have faculty status and that ROTC military science courses confer Brown course credit. He said these issues were unchanged today, adding that there are currently six Brown students who participate in ROTC through Providence College.
In response to a question by Mike Thompson ’07 about Brown’s long break and the idea of a potential winter term, Simmons said that it would be very complicated to arrange such a term.
“Most of all I’d like to hear what students think about” the issue, she said.
“You can start the semester earlier and have a longer semester … and of all the options that would probably be the one I would prefer.”
Thompson, a transfer student who said he was involved in discussions with the administration last semester about transfer financial aid, told The Herald after the speech, “We’re just amazed we have money … we were delighted.”
With regard to Simmons’ announcement of the new lecture fund, Etan Green ’08 told The Herald he thought it was significant that the three most visible speakers last semester were Howard Dean, Noam Chomsky and Jesse Jackson. Green wondered if the new fund would work.
“With the significant leftist leanings, will anyone take advantage of (the fund), and will anyone show up?” he said.
Ben Creo ’07, UCS appointments chair, told The Herald he was excited about the new Community Council.
“I think the Community Council was one of the best ideas given tonight,” Creo said, “and I think President Simmons is very passionately behind it, and with that in mind, I think it will do great things.”