Columns

Jonathan Topaz ’12: The Brown fantasy tour

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sitting on the steps of Faunce during peak high school visiting, a couple friends and I began talking about a few rough patches we encountered in our first semester at Brown. One had trouble finding small, intimate classes. One felt disconnected from his professors. One felt that Providence was inaccessible and difficult to navigate.

Almost on cue, a visiting mother and daughter who caught some wind of our conversation sat down and asked if they could briefly talk to us about Brown. These types of conversations with real students, they explained, often proved to be the most valuable way of discovering the school. Amidst the whirlwind of college visits, the prospective student confessed a familiar sentiment: “Every tour started to sound the same.”

So that begs the question: What are these student tours attempting to accomplish?

Certainly they physically show the Brown campus and give sound information as to how Brown works. But it appears that tours at Brown (and at most every university) are propaganda machines, hour-long sessions that promote the agenda of getting the largest number of students to apply as possible.

What is fascinating about all of this is that the admissions office has very little to do with the tours themselves. The extremely organized group behind this — the Bruin Club — is completely student-run, and the ranking officials on the committee merely supply tour guides with mostly logistical information. Sure, some of these pieces of information are misleading — for example, the low student-to-faculty ratio and average class size we brag about are deflated due to a few very small seminars and departments.

But on the whole, it seems that most of the embellishment isn’t coming from the script. Wherever the inflated language comes from, its presence in everyday tours is harmful for two reasons.

First, it blurs Brown’s distinction from other schools. The reason that every tour “sounds the same”, according to this one student, is that there is an unwritten trajectory to how tours work. Students emphasize important locations such as student unions and freshman dorms, call attention to university traditions, throw in some mild jokes and brag about things all prospective students are worried about, such as professors’ attention to undergraduates. Thus, when people take a tour of Brown (no doubt with qualified and intelligent guides) many seem to respond the way that the mother and daughter on the Faunce steps did — with a convoluted vision of it.

The second, and graver consequence, however, is that embellished language and a purely positive portrayal of Brown leads to disbelief and skepticism from prospective students. If a guide states that teaching assistants are minor players in most classes, what happens when prospective students ask who grades exams in lecture classes? If these embellishments are proven to be false (by something as simple as talking to a non-tour-guide student), why should the prospective student believe anything he or she has heard?

I am not suggesting that tour guides highlight all things negative at Brown for fear of committing a sin of omission. However, how much trust would a guide earn if he or she stated, “Teaching assistants in fact do much of the grading, but professors almost exclusively perform lectures and are readily available for meetings after class”? That simple acknowledgement of a small negative is a sign of candor that both expresses respect for prospective students and paints a realistic picture of Brown. If guides admit some shortcomings about Brown, their portrayal of a great university with minor flaws will be significantly more trusted.

So, to what extent do we sell the school as fantasy? To what degree are we attempting to give prospective students a realistic picture of Brown, and to what degree are we attempting to achieve a higher application rate? Do we really want students applying if they have a false impression of our institution? And if tour guides aren’t indebted to the admissions office, why do they function as an extension of it?

Brown’s recent decision to accept the Common Application underscores a crucial point. We seem to be blurring the lines between Brown and the other elite universities in the country. Much of what makes Brown brilliant is that its distinct message attracts students who strongly identify with it. By appealing to the masses, and perhaps abandoning a bit of truth in the process, it seems that we are losing a piece of our public identity.

Jonathan Topaz ’12 is from New York City. He can be reached at Jonathan.Topaz@gmail.com.