University News

On TV and the Web, sifting through images of Brown

Third in a five-part series

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

For the more than 30,000 students who applied to Brown this year, the popular college admissions Web site College Confidential, whether reliable or not, acted as a prime source of information about the school.

On the site’s Brown forum, students post everything from standardized test scores to impressions of the University, mentioning the litany of stereotypes and press attention that Brown has received — liberal students, celebrity children, a unique curriculum and even Sex Power God. Will my conservative beliefs be attacked if I matriculate? Does Brown value the sciences? Concerned students ask questions and await responses that fluctuate between petty and informational.

College Confidential is only part of a larger trend. For prospective students, parsing media coverage of Brown — good and bad — is particularly daunting. Stereotypes about Brown are the fodder of blogs and college guidebooks, television shows and campus reviews, with commentators offering everything from criticism to effusive praise.

And as the University’s visibility has skyrocketed, pinning down Brown’s image amid media scrutiny and college admissions hype remains a challenge.

‘Fitting in at Brown’

“I am not very politically active or artsy, nor am I big into the party scene,” wrote one student on College Confidential. “Will I find kids with similar interests at Brown?”

“Brown is really not about any one kid,” responded Jason Becker ’09 GS, who posts under the pseudonym “modestmelody” on the site.

Becker started posting voluntarily in 2005 after finding the site to be a good source of information as an incoming student.

“I mostly speak from my experience or the experiences of people I know,” said Becker, who has served as a tour guide, a member of the Task Force on Undergraduate Education and a part of the College Curriculum Council.

Becker aims to “dispel misinformation” on issues like Brown’s political atmosphere, its ranking in the U.S. News and World Report — the lowest in the Ivy League — its financial aid program and the rigor of the New Curriculum. But the frequency of critical questions about Brown’s academics has diminished since he started posting, Becker said.

Prospective students turn to media coverage of Brown, including The Herald, as important sources of information about the school, Becker said.

Becker did “damage control” after the New York Times published an essay by a Brown student who wrote that he “nonchalantly signed up to take second-semester organic chemistry.” The essay led some high school students to believe Brown was not serious about science, a perception that may also be due to the small size of Brown’s graduate programs in the sciences, Becker said.

While Becker focuses on giving people an accurate picture of the University, he emphasizes the importance of making sure Brown is the right fit.

“One of the most powerful things to tell people is that Brown might not be the right place for you,” Becker said. “But if this is what they’re looking for, we need to help students figure out that they don’t want to go to those other places even before the application process begins.”

Damage control

The University has received negative press attention for various incidents in recent years, including the decision to rename Columbus Day to Fall Weekend in its academic calendar, the pie launched at writer Thomas Friedman during a 2008 lecture and President Ruth Simmons’ position on Goldman Sachs’ board of directors.

But echoes of media coverage from the 2005 Sex Power God party — which attracted the ire of Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly — still resonate. The event, a Queer Alliance party then held in Sayles Hall, ignited a controversy over partying at Brown.

In a video made by O’Reilly Factor producer Jesse Waters, barely-clothed students are seen gyrating in a room ringed by portraits of University presidents. Calling the party “pure debauchery” in an on-air segment, Waters — who purchased a ticket to the dance for $80 online — described students’ drug use and sexual profligacy.

Brown’s response largely centered on “risk management and harm control” rather than direct engagement with the media, according to Queer Alliance chair Aida Manduley ’11.

Immediately following the event, the Queer Alliance was placed on probation. Instead of having a spring dance that year, the alliance launched a “sexual diversity campaign” and undertook a “big revision process of the dance and dance policies,” Manduley said. 

Sex Power God occurred again in 2006 with notable changes, including stricter admission policies, a list of dance guidelines given to partygoers and a new venue, Alumnae Hall. The dance has occurred yearly ever since.

Party life at Brown is also an issue during Spring Weekend, when many prospective students and their families visit the University.

Over 1,000 people per day have visited on the Thursday and Friday before the notoriously raucous weekend, a time that sometimes overlaps with high school spring vacations, according to Christiana Stephenson ’11, tours co-coordinator for the Bruin Club and The Herald’s alumni relations director.

Diverting tours to bypass Wriston Quadrangle, the center of the University’s Greek life, during the days preceding Spring Weekend is a long-standing practice that will also be in effect this year, said Bryan Smith ’10, tours co-coordinator.

Loud noise and the large number of students on Wriston make bringing tours through the area difficult, according to Stephenson, who emphasized that the goal of the tour is to present an accurate view of Brown.

“Is Spring Weekend really what life at Brown is like? Probably not,” Stephenson said.

Intellectual diversity

A 2006 article by Herald Opinions Columnist Sean Quigley ’10 in the Brown Spectator, Brown’s publication for conservative and libertarian views, called the post-O’Reilly iteration of the party “an abomination, whose justification is an affront to logical reasoning, let alone spiritual well-being.”

In recent years, conservative students and alumni have vocalized criticism of Brown as a particularly left-leaning institution.

Stephen Beale ’04, who started the Spectator in fall 2002, formed the Foundation for Intellectual Diversity after encountering difficulty funding the Spectator as a student organization. A non-profit dedicated to promoting “underrepresented ideas, beliefs and perspectives” at Brown, the foundation provides money and assistance to conservative and religious student groups, according to its Web site.

“The most important kind of diversity on college campuses is intellectual diversity and so when you’re talking about other forms of diversity — racial diversity, ethnic diversity, sexual diversity — Brown may do very well,” Beale said. “But when you talk about intellectual diversity, that is something that Brown is very much lacking in.”

One “encouraging development,” according to Beale, is the Kaleidoscope Lecture Fund, which Beale said was started after members of the foundation discussed a perceived lack of diversity in campus speakers with President Ruth Simmons.

The fund is used to bring speakers that “in the stereotypical view are seen as being ‘not Brown,’ ” said Assistant to the President Hannelore Rodriguez-Farrar ’87 MA’90 PhD’09.
Started in 2005, the fund was originally constituted with $100,000 of the president’s discretionary funds. Past Kaleidoscope speakers include Sally Winn, then vice president of Feminists for Life of America; Peter Singer, a Princeton professor who is vocal on animal rights issues; and diplomats John Bolton and Richard Holbrooke ’62.

“What we need to do is fulfill our mission,” Rodriguez-Farrar said. “Part of that mission is intellectual diversity.”

In Deo Speramus

Brown’s motto, In Deo Speramus, means
“In God We Hope.” But in recent years, the school has not been known for having an especially religious student body.

Brown’s religious ties date to its 1764 start, and until Henry Wriston — who assumed the presidency in 1937 — all presidents were ordained Baptist ministers. But Brown was the first in the nation to admit students without regard to religious identification, according to the University’s Web site.

According to University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, the demographics of Brown’s incoming student body mirror its early affiliation with organized religion.

“In fact, three-quarters of you walking in the door, if we ask you about your religious backgrounds, give us proper nouns,” Cooper Nelson said, referring to an online religious affiliation survey taken by approximately 95 percent of incoming students.

About 62 percent of students receive some form of communication from a religious group on campus, according to Cooper Nelson.

“Brown’s range of religious identities is really interesting,” Cooper Nelson said. “Part of my intrigue is for why when you look at a Brown Web page or you look at a Brown viewbook and don’t see anything (about religion).”

Brown’s contemporary lack of emphasis on religion traces to efforts to transform the school from a regional institution to a national research university in the late 1950s and early 1960s, according to Cooper Nelson.

“Religion was being equated, both in the academy and the social context of the U.S., with a less intellectual brand,” Cooper Nelson said. “Brown wanted to put forward a picture of itself as a really hard-boiled, intellectual place and so it began to airbrush religion out of the public face of the institution.”

Kevin Roose ‘09.5, who wrote “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University” about a semester at Liberty University, struggled with how to depict religious life at Brown “without resorting to stereotypes,” he said.

Though Roose acknowledges that Brown may seem libertine by the conservative Christian values of Liberty — namely, a code of conduct that prohibits smoking, drinking, cursing and dancing — no institution is a monolith.

“I think there is a sense on campus that maybe students aren’t as religiously-minded here,” said Mindy Phillips ’10, a member of the Shepherd Team, the leadership board of College Hill for Christ.

While there are “pockets of animosity towards Christianity on campus,” Phillips cautioned that the perception that Brown students are not tolerant of religion is “refuted at the individual level,” as many students are willing to talk to members of College Hill for Christ about their religious beliefs.

For those who seek to practice their faith on campus, religious communities are vibrant and available, Phillips said.

New takes, New Curriculum

For Prerna Ramachandra ’14, what drew her to Brown is simple — the New Curriculum. 
Ramachandra, who hails from New Delhi, India, hopes to double-concentrate in computer science and English literature. Brown was the only university that would give her the flexibility she sought to pursue both, which was “not offered anywhere else, even in my own country,” she said.

“The Open Curriculum is resonating with this generation of students in a new and powerful way,” Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said.

Yet Brown’s curriculum, with its absence of pluses and minuses in grading, emphasis on personal choice and option for students to take classes Satisfactory/No Credit, has caused some to draw a link between a lack of requirements and a lack of rigor.

Questions about the curriculum’s rigor — leveled by what she calls “open curriculum skeptics” — do come up on campus tours, according to Stephenson.

The best answer to these questions, which usually come from parents, is to provide information “grounded in your own experience,” Stephenson said. “I tell people that the average Brown student’s choices actually end up looking like they followed distribution requirements.”

But the stereotype has two sides. Skeptics may draw a link between the New Curriculum’s openness and lower academic standards.

For courses taken with for a grade in the 2008-09 academic year, over half of students — 53 percent — received an A. Only 4 percent of grades were Cs.

Michael Goldberger, former director of the Office of Admission, acknowledged that the New Curriculum was of concern to parents. The University will “try to convey the sense of excitement and engagement about learning — try not to be defensive, because this is what makes Brown great,” he said. “It’s not something we have to apologize for. The key was not being apologetic, and just saying ‘No, this is our curriculum, and it’s fabulous.’ “

The good news with the bad

Vice President for Public Affairs and University Relations Marisa Quinn is the University’s spokesperson. Since taking the job in 2008, Quinn has steered Brown’s public relations through — most recently — layoffs of 60 non-teaching employees and Simmons’ decision to leave the Goldman Sachs board.

She was reluctant to talk about specific instances of negative press or student misconduct.

“We have a lot of good news,” Quinn said. “There’s certainly a share of difficult and challenging news to communicate, some of which is of interest to the media and some which is really just community-wide.”

The goal is to provide “clear, concise, factual information” to dispel rumor and give people a standard set of facts as a story evolves. Privacy is a top consideration when dealing with issues regarding students, faculty and other University personnel, she said.

But not all news is controversial. Director of News and Communications Sarah Kidwell largely works to provide the media and others outside the University with information about research at Brown. Kidwell often connects interested parties to faculty and graduate students making breakthroughs in their fields.

“We get calls from the media all the time about the kind of research we’re involved in,” she said.

In cases related to Brown’s internal governance, like faculty decisions or student discipline issues, Quinn stresses “the thoughtful, civilized process” guiding the University’s actions.

“We always have processes and procedures here for dealing with any particular event or instance, and we think we are very well served by those,” Quinn said.