Columns

Liebling ’12: The Simmons legacy

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, September 29, 2011

No prospective student priced out of Brown has ever been the talk of campus. There have been no Associated Press obituaries lamenting the loss of tenure, teaching or the university-college. But as we bemoan the departure of Brown’s most beloved president, let us interrupt the admiration for a moment to remember the losses no one ever bothered to commemorate.

From the beginning, it seemed that President Ruth Simmons and her administration took little pride in what makes Brown Brown. Obsessed with competitors, “peer institutions” and the battle for rankings and prestige, Simmons set out to make Brown into something it had never wanted or tried to be: Harvard South — a profit-hunting international research university that scoffs at the quaint naivete of the beloved university-college.

Recognizing the campus was not nearly glitzy enough for her aspirations, Simmons undertook a construction and renovation campaign on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, ranging from the $100 million Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences to the rococo chandeliers that adorn J. Walter Wilson to a $10 million sidewalk.  

And since Building Brown was the darling brainchild of her administration, when the recession came, the budget cuts had to made somewhere else.

Simmons, calling for shared sacrifice over construction noise, fired nearly 100 employees while trying to strong-arm Brown Dining Services and University Library workers into giving up their health care.  Reminding us that spending less in a recession was the prudent thing for anyone to do, she raised tuition 16 percent over the last four years, trusting that our families were somehow more able than Brown to shoulder the burden.

 For her part, Simmons took a voluntary pay cut from Brown of about $100,000, but that turned out to be a symbolic gesture when she stepped down from her $323,000-a-year gig on the board of directors of Goldman Sachs with $5.7 million in company stock.

Her resignation from Goldman, though, came only after she had tied Brown to the billions in bailout-backed executive bonuses she approved as a member of Goldman’s compensation committee, drawing the ire of the national media and dragging the University into the recession’s starkest example of tone-deaf corporate greed.

Back on campus, undergraduate education — never the biggest money maker — was shunted to the sidelines in favor of revenue and profit-maximization as the administration chased its vision of a corporatized research university. Abandoning Brown’s centuries-long and identity-defining commitment to resist pre-professional instruction, Simmons poured scarce resources into the medical school while establishing a school of engineering and a joint M.B.A. program.  Online professional degree programs will begin next fall.

And because a corporatized, profitable university consolidates power in the hands of management and pushes its professors to do more research and less teaching, Simmons’ administration rammed through tenure reforms that gave tenure-granting authority to administrators instead of to faculty and doubled the number of required letters from outside experts in a faculty member’s field — references that are earned not through quality teaching, which those experts never see, but rather through published (and profitable) research.

All these reforms — the defining accomplishments of Simmons’ presidential term — come at the cost of quality undergraduate education in the liberal arts, a singular emphasis that has always distinguished Brown from its Ivy League counterparts. By turning Brown into just another research university, Simmons has abandoned the particular identity that attracted generations of students who were looking for more than a safety school for Harvard, Princeton or Yale.

And to free up resources for her assimilationist vision, Brown under Simmons’ leadership  has shamelessly embraced union-busting and price-gouging, ensuring that the true legacy of her tenure will not be progress and growth but homogeneity and corporatization.

Simon Liebling ’12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at simon.liebling@gmail.com.