Columns

Syme GS: The hand that feeds us

By
Opinions Columnist

In its editorial column (“Brown is not Goliath,” March 21), The Herald’s editorial page board argued that Brown should not significantly increase its payments to Providence because this would threaten Brown’s valuable educational mission, specifically by leading to tuition increases or cuts in financial aid. The column exemplified a worryingly dominant strain of thought in the Brown community which shies away from asking critical questions about the governance of this University. This goes far beyond the specifics of Brown’s payments to the city. It is far too rarely acknowledged by many on this campus that the priorities and motives of Brown’s governing authorities need not be aligned with those of any other members of the Brown community or wider society.   

The plutocratic financiers and assorted high-flyers of the Corporation utilize a professionalized corporate administration to govern this University without a shred of genuine accountability. The Undergraduate Council Students, Graduate Student Council and faculty governance are politically irrelevant, and the minutes of Corporation meetings are kept secret for 25 years.

This University provides us all with a fantastic education and a supremely comfortable environment in which to work, learn and live. We should get everything out of this place that we reasonably can, but we should never buy into the administration’s manipulative branding. We should never forget that, as an institution, Brown plays an important role in perpetuating the social, economic and political inequalities that have structured American society for centuries. It does not deserve unquestioning loyalty from any of us. Its rulers, like anyone in a position of unaccountable power, should be treated with a strong measure of critical suspicion. 

We should not let any potential discomfort about our own complicity in injustice prevent us from interrogating the practices of an institution like Brown. These practices may be “normal” here, but they embody a form of education very rare elsewhere in the world. While it has long been the custom to use education to cloister the children of the elite away from wider society and groom them for power, America is very unusual in continuing this ancient custom in such concrete form. It is a strange and disturbing feature of American life that many of its best and brightest young people spend four years of putative freedom before entering work living in a physical, social and educational environment where almost every aspect of life is designed and structured by a single paternalistic institution. These institutions systematically isolate them from the community around them and seek to inculcate an insular sense of communal identity. This structure may benefit some, but it should not be blithely embraced without reflection on how it ever came to be seen as an ideal.

Brown is deeply enmeshed with the financial, industrial and political elites currently doing such a sterling job of running the world – a glance at the corporate employers Brown trumpets on its own admissions website comprises one obvious piece of evidence. Indeed, there would be little point in coming here were this not the case – your tuition buys access to power as much as it does a fantastic education. Despite all the advantages of attending Brown, however, the editorial page board was right to point out that many students struggle to pay for a Brown education and should be protected. This is obviously true. It is heinously unfair that only the stunningly wealthy truly enjoy the freedom and opportunity that a Brown education is supposed to give because only they are unconstrained by huge personal debt when they graduate. It is the Corporation, of course, that decides – in secret – how much to charge you.

This article may anger many but it is not my intention to castigate anyone. Each of us can only do so much to counter the impact of the powerful institutions that surround us and must very often simply try to navigate and use them as best we can. Notice, however, that the undergraduates are the most powerful group at this University other than the Corporation and its administration. Brown is financially dependent on them – you! – for tuition money and brand image while the rest of us – some star faculty excepted – are dependent on its largesse. This gives the undergraduates significant power should they ever choose to challenge Corporation policy. The disturbing riot-proof architecture of Graduate Center is testament to the fact that the Corporation is well-aware of this, though they now secure docility largely by other means.  

Perhaps it is not yet time to take to the streets, though many of our fellow students across America and the world certainly believe that it is. It is long past overdue, though, for the Brown student body and its newspaper to stop uncritically swallowing the Corporation line. The Corporation may govern this place, but the real value of the University lies not in its endowment, its history or its expansive ambitions, but in its students, teachers, workers and the community around it. We should all remember that what’s good for the Corporation may not be good for the rest of us.

 

 

Tim Syme GS can be reached at timothy_syme@Brown.edu.