Is a Bigger Brown Better?

How Ruth Simmons' Ambitious Agenda Is Altering the University-College

By
Monday, June 2, 2008

Situated at the crest of College Hill, the Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences strikes an imposing figure. The downhill end of the building is a towering brick face, partly gridded with rows of windows that look in on state-of-the-art labs and faculty offices. It occupies almost an entire block. To mute the impact of its bulk, a walkway slices through the middle, spanned by an airy pedestrian bridge.

Completed in 2006 and costing nearly $100 million, the building many students call the LiSci provides Brown’s growing Division of Biology and Medicine with much-needed lab and office space, filled with the advanced technology that leading-edge science increasingly demands. For professors grown accustomed to working in cramped and outdated labs, the building’s long-anticipated opening couldn’t have come too soon.

But students are more likely to hurry through the chasm dividing its two wings than traverse the glassy archway overhead. A medium-sized lecture hall is the building’s only formal classroom, and students only sporadically occupy the stylish armchairs in its spacious lobby.

The completion of Sidney Frank Hall is but the first among a slew of changes slated to transform Brown’s physical campus. It marks the northern terminus of the Walk, a planned pedestrian greensward along which a creative arts center and a new brain sciences hub will be built over the next few years. Now, Sidney Frank Hall overlooks open space and aging houses, but planners say the surrounding campus will soon grow up to meet it.

Physical expansion is, in many ways, just now catching up to dramatic changes already underway at Brown. In this decade, Brown’s faculty and endowment, now approaching $3 billion, have grown rapidly while undergraduate acceptance rates repeatedly set new record lows. The Alpert Medical School began its steady rise in national rankings even before a $100 million gift renamed it last year, and a steady flow of fresh resources to the Graduate School have bolstered its formerly lackluster reputation.

Long-serving faculty largely agree that the current initiatives are overdue – the University is acting decisively and ambitiously, more so now than it has in decades, they say.

Depending on your point of view, these changes may thrill or frighten you. At issue is Brown’s traditional identity as a “university-college” committed to the primacy of undergraduate education. For the architects of Brown’s current path, the university-college identity is enduring and guides the current agenda. But in the eyes of some faculty and former administrators, the distinctive culture that defines Brown is fragile and could be jeopardized by the speedy expansion slated for the coming years.

A President with a Plan

Brown’s current momentum is often credited to President Ruth Simmons, and for good reason. When Simmons took its reins in July 2001, the University’s trajectory bore little resemblance to the energetic vision she has since cultivated.

At the turn of the millennium, feelings of promise and possibility were in short supply. The year 2000 may have been the University’s low-water mark. In February, then-President Gordon Gee abruptly quit after less than three years on the job, becoming chancellor at Vanderbilt University. In the midst of a dreary College Hill winter, the newly bare shelves in the president’s first-floor University Hall office underscored what many felt had already been true for several years: Brown had no coherent plan for the future.

Many on campus had felt for some time that the University urgently needed to address several glaring weaknesses: a slumping grad school, the only non-need-blind admission policy in the Ivy League and an aging infrastructure. Plans for a new life sciences building, for example, had been kicked around for years without a single brick being laid. The longer a culture of inaction persisted, the more dire prevailing attitudes became.

Brown at the time was “more concerned with deficiencies than it was with ambitions,” says Professor of Anthropology William Simmons ’60, who served as provost under Gee. “The idea that Brown could be bigger was not really an idea anyone had.”

The prevailing notion under Gee, he said, was one of “growth through substitution” – any new initiatives would need to be paid for by budget cuts elsewhere.

The University set out to find a leader who could tackle these mounting challenges. By November, the search committee had settled on Ruth Simmons, the dynamic president of Smith College and a former Princeton administrator.

Simmons was not oblivious to the inertia on campus. Her first semester on College Hill, she said at a faculty meeting that Brown was facing “harbingers of mediocrity.” If Brown continued to hold pat, she said in a recent interview, it risked no longer attracting top students and faculty.

“Brown’s position in higher education could not be maintained on the then-current course,” Simmons says. “That was clear from all of the indicators – that in fact there were competitors fast on the heels of Brown and wanting to overtake its place.”

With Brown’s malaise clear and its most pressing needs well-known, Simmons and the University’s governing body, the Corporation, sat down to chart a course. Their first discussions, she says, revolved around a fundamental question: “What should we be?” It was a crucial moment.

“What I presented was the opportunity for Brown to be a college, a small place more comparable to Williams and Amherst and Pomona,” Simmons recalls. “I thought Brown could be an exceptionally fine college and certainly be among the top colleges in the country, and that was a viable option.”

But she also presented the option to continue to compete with top research universities, she says. That was the course the Corporation overwhelmingly endorsed.

“Nobody could imagine a different identity for Brown wherein we would be no longer an Ivy League university,” she says. “Once the University identified that as a goal, it was my view that we were not on the right track in terms of achieving that.”

After a short but intensive period of campus consultation, Simmons laid out an agenda and set a tone. Fretting over Brown’s lack of resources would be replaced by a willingness to take measured risks and address clear needs. Among her swiftest acts was introducing need-blind admission – long a competitive disadvantage for Brown, avoided for years because of its cost. A dramatic expansion of the faculty headlined her plans.

Simmons’ early initiatives morphed into a detailed vision, the Plan for Academic Enrichment – a comprehensive and constantly fine-tuned document, striking for its scope and its specificity. With the overarching goal of raising Brown’s academic profile, the Plan set forth a staggering number of projects to be fueled by aggressive spending across the University. An accompanying capital campaign has now raised well over $1 billion, providing a vital infusion of cash.

Simmons has tempered her goals somewhat since she arrived. Her early talk about revolutionizing graduate education in the image of the New Curriculum, for instance, has given way to increasing stipends and lowering admission rates. While she used to worry about doing everything, she says she has now “made peace” with the fact that she won’t accomplish all she set out to do. But she hopes to leave Brown poised and prepared to cement its place in the uppermost echelon of higher education.

A Demanding Equation

As students pass in and out of the Van Wickle Gates, some of those who have borne witness to the changes Simmons set in motion are uneasy. In seeking to compete more vigorously with the cream of the scholarly crop, Simmons admits that Brown has placed higher research expectations on faculty. Some fear this shift will undermine undergraduate teaching and advising.

“If we say that we want to be a great university, given the way that is defined today ­- not just in the United States but throughout the world – w
e actually have no choice. Research comes with it,” Simmons says.

But while Brown’s research ambitions have grown along with the University itself, professors say, the number of hours in a day have not. Amid increasing demands, faculty say there is an expectation that research will take a front seat, though the signals are hard to identify. Start-up funds made available under Simmons have lowered hurdles for research projects, and tenure decisions weight research accomplishments as much as they ever have.

Kathryn Spoehr ’69, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and the provost when Gee resigned, is among the most acutely concerned faculty.

“Everybody on the faculty is giving more attention to research,” she says, especially the junior faculty hired under the current administration. That means the biggest shift in culture may not be seen “for a little while yet,” she says.

“In the long run, it’s going to erode Brown’s traditional emphasis on education,” she said.

“It’s not that we are worried about all this investment in research,” says Associate Professor of Psychology Ruth Colwill, who, as chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, helps spearhead faculty involvement in University decision-making. “The concern for faculty is that we would shift the weighting of emphasis for faculty into research and away from teaching and service.”

Others are less alarmed, but they still have concerns. Many agree that Brown must carefully recruit star hires, seeking those who will respect the value of teaching.

Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences Sheila Blumstein, who served as interim president after Gee’s resignation, is optimistic about the path Simmons has charted. But, she warns, Brown must sustain community even as growth continues. Brown’s small size has fostered faculty collaboration across departments, she said, contributing to its coveted reputation for interdisciplinary curiosity.

“What Brown can’t lose is that community spirit,” Blumstein says.

Asked about the impact of higher research ambitions, Blumstein pointed to Stanford as a cautionary model. Lauded as an exemplary research university, Stanford recently undertook an effort to “rediscover” the “importance of teaching undergraduates,” she says.

“Brown has never had to do that,” she says. But, she adds, “We better not lose that, because you don’t get it back.”

A sense that the current agenda is largely dictated by other universities’ standards, rather than informed by Brown’s existing strengths, concerns some faculty. Brown now emphasizes “competing with peer institutions on their terms,” Colwill puts it. “When we start comparing ourselves, who do we pick as the cohort?”

Faculty appreciate investments made under Simmons but too often feel shut out of the decisions that drive them, Colwill says. For instance, faculty do not necessarily oppose higher research standards for tenure, but some feel the upper administration has already imposed that expectation without proper consideration of its potential impact on Brown’s culture.

“I don’t always get the sense that a lot of things are thought through as well as they should be,” Colwill says, adding that many faculty feel the University should proceed more carefully. “What we have to be attentive to is making sure we just don’t simply accept change, or we don’t allow it to be thrust on us.”

Simmons says she recognizes the faculty’s concerns. Many high-powered research universities do lose track of teaching, she acknowledged. But, she says, “What we have to face is that it is not either/or.”

“If you’re in the marketplace today and you don’t care about teaching, the last place in higher education that you’d ever come is to Brown,” Simmons says. “A core value for us is that every faculty member, no matter how elevated, now matter how celebrated for research and scholarship, teaches undergraduates. … If you hew to that in the recruitment process, you will lose some people, but I think that you will be able to preserve the culture.”

But Simmons says she does worry that making changes she feels are necessary can be difficult for faculty.

“When you’re in a transition where you’re putting more emphasis on scholarship and research, inevitably there are people who get caught in the middle,” Simmons says. “The people you’re bringing in today will take that as a given, so they will move through their careers with the expectation that research is going to play a greater role. But what about the people who came here 25 years ago, and things are changing?”

“How can we transition to that higher expectation without denigrating the people who have gotten us where we are, who may have had less of an emphasis on scholarship and research?” she adds. “That’s a very, very serious question that we have to pay attention to.”

Brown in the Balance

How these changes will alter Brown’s place in higher education or its culture remains unclear, and the coming years will be pivotal. Even as a weakening economy threatens the double-digit endowment gains and robust fundraising Brown has recently enjoyed, work remains to be done. Simmons’ ambitions still require aggressive spending, and though she has not previously been inclined to slow growth for lack of funding, fiscal realities may test her resolve.

Most faculty and administrators agree Brown has made great strides under Simmons but that it still lags behind its wealthier Ivy League brethren in many metrics.

“We’ve been keeping up, but we haven’t been gaining ground,” Spoehr says. Given the vast resources at the disposal of competitors like Harvard and Yale, she says, “It’s very difficult for Brown to compete on all fronts.”

As the University steels itself to stay in the race – reaffirming major objectives with a “reassessment” of the Plan for Academic Enrichment earlier this year – Simmons’ course could over-stretch the University.

When the class of 2008 returns for its 10th reunion – much less its 20th – Brown will undoubtedly look and feel different. The question is, what will remain familiar?

For those concerned by the changes to date, Brown’s culture is already precarious – it lives and dies with the fast-changing student body and in the few extra hours a faculty member spends fine-tuning her lecture notes.

In Colwill’s eyes, Brown’s identity is continually forged by its faculty and its students. Many faculty, she says, want to teach the unique brand of student drawn in by Brown’s ethos.

“If there’s any sense the culture’s changing, then you may start losing students, and once you start losing students then the culture will change,” Colwill says. “My main worry is if things change, by the time we realize, by the time we recognize it’s changed, it will be too late at that point to do anything.”

Simmons isn’t deterred.

“I happen to believe that culture is heartier than most people say,” she says. “Every time the University makes a push, the doomsayers say it’s going to change inalterably and destroy some of the most important features of the University. It always happens that way. … Think about the great moments of change in our country and on campuses. It’s always emotional for us to see things that have been so important for us in our lives change.”

“At the same time, if people wanted to stop change at Brown, stop Brown from moving in a direction to improve on what it is and what it offers its students, I would not be here,” Simmons says. “Because I know profoundly it would be the wrong thing for Brown.”

Instead, Simmons is driven by a different concern: “that the pace of change will be too slow.”

“I believe that Brown is in a death struggle to retain its place – retain its place – in higher education,” she says. “If we do not work hard and intelligently at making improvements … easily, within 10 or 20 years, we could be on the outside of the shop window looking in and saying, ‘We could have been there.’ “

In the meantime, as change continues, the debate will likely rage on. Spoehr’s pre
decessor as provost, William Simmons, has been watching Brown evolve as a Providence native, a Brown grad, a faculty member and a former top administrator. He’s not yet sure how the current administration will ultimately alter the University he’s come to know.

“They’re improving Brown in ways everyone can recognize,” he says. “The degree to which they are making us stronger versions of ourselves, that’s the question mark.”

For now, he’s content to watch the changes unfold. To reveal their impact, he will look to how well Brown continues to stay connected to its East Side roots and how engaged its faculty remain in University service outside their own scholarly interests.

And, he says: “Architecture.” The first new building along the Walk could open as early as 2010.