University News

At town hall, calls to define U. mission

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Students discussed the need for a community-based University mission statement at last night’s Janus Forum Town Hall event, “The Search for Brown’s Next President.”

“It’s high time for students to rally together” and redefine Brown’s values, said Simon Liebling ’12, one of three panelists at the event, which drew about 30 students.

Liebling and fellow panelists Samuel Howard ’14 and Paul Tran ’14 cited three documents that have outlined the University’s mission: former President Henry Wriston’s letter describing a “university-college,” the New Curriculum and the cornerstone of President Ruth Simmons’ term, the Plan for Academic Enrichment.

But Liebling, a Herald opinions columnist, said the PAE does not outline goals for the University. Rather, it looks at tactics, ignoring questions of what Brown should prioritize and what it should sacrifice. He also criticized the plan’s top-down imposition, contrasting it with “grassroots” initiatives like the New Curriculum or the student debate about athletics.

But Howard noted the value of the PAE and said it has faced little to no community resistance, which he suggested indicates students are “comfortable with the direction the University is going.”

 He said he would only try to  unite undergraduate and graduate programs to “make a more dynamic relationship” between the two and move funding from hard sciences to humanities for a more equitable division of resources.

The discussion then turned to the question of what kind of mission statement the presidential search should require — whether it should be a new document to replace the New Curriculum, a rewritten and expanded version of the existing document or a brief statement outlining Brown’s values.

Howard questioned the practicality of “radically reevaluating” the University’s entire mission during a presidential search. But Liebling said practical concerns should not override the necessity for a new mission statement, adding that it need not be drafted by the time a new president is hired.

The new president should be aware of the “necessity of creating a value” and then should facilitate such a discussion with the University community, he said.

Liebling added that he would not want to remove the academic freedom promoted by the New Curriculum.

But “there is plenty of room for revisitation,” he said, noting that the New Curriculum does not address questions of research or the community’s social obligations.

Students in the audience said a mission statement would be essential in resolving other questions on campus, citing debates over athletics, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and where to cut funding during the economic crisis.

Chaney Harrison ‘11.5, who served on the University Resources Committee in 2008 and on the ROTC committee, said the lack of a defined mission statement was “terrifying” in both of those situations.

“How can we possibly set an example when we don’t even know who we are?” he said. A clear mission is essential to finding the right president, he added.

The discussion also addressed the role of the humanities and social sciences versus the hard sciences. Liebling and Howard, who are concentrating in history and development studies, respectively, acknowledged disparity in funding between the two disicplines, though Howard said funding for research can apply to humanities and social sciences as well as hard sciences.

Liebling said humanities have suffered at the expense of expanding physical sciences.

“No administrator has really been honest about trade-offs,” he said.

In the last question, Katherine Haves ’12 asked the panelists to use what had been discussed to define what they would like to see in the next University president.

The next president “needs to value a history of Brown that fosters community engagement,” Liebling said. Howard agreed with Liebling and added the need to expand the University’s global presence and follow through with the PAE.

Tran, who arrived an hour into the forum, said that, as the first in his family to graduate high school, he wanted to see a president who also came “from the margins.”

Forum attendants also included Chung-I Tan, professor of physics and chair of the Campus Advisory Committee, and student members of the committee.

Tan said though he could not comment on deliberations, the forum will be helpful in future discussions.

“It’s nice to hear from three very articulate persons,” he said, “expounding visions about the future of Brown very passionately.”