With only a few weeks left before Commencement, it is time to review the year – what went well and what can be improved. This year has brought a lot of excitement and enrichment, both academically and socially. As Ruth Simmons said in her opening speech for this academic year, at Brown everyone is a star among stars.
But the Big Bear and the Little Bear – that is, the graduate students and the undergraduates – have not always had an easy relationship, as they sometimes perceive themselves in competition rather than cooperation. While the Graduate Student Council has actively sought improvement on these issues, work remains to be done in two somewhat related areas: transparency and integration of the two student bodies.
The graduate community actively strives to be included more in undergraduate life and should absolutely expect cooperation and clarity from the undergrad organizations, but it has to be a two-way street. When Seth Meyers did a quick survey to establish the demographic makeup of his audience a few weeks ago when he visited Brown – “who here is a freshman?” – my friend and I were the only graduate students in attendance. This was not the first time we found ourselves in this situation. From comedy shows to social clubs to academic committees, integration between graduate and undergraduate students is something of an anomaly. The GSC should do a better job of encouraging grad students to interact with undergraduate peers.
Additionally, establishing a relationship of mutual respect and trust is a responsibility of individual graduate students. More than once I have read complete sentences or even paragraphs from undergraduate essays on Facebook posted there by teaching assistants to demonstrate the dire state of composition or knowledge they had to plow through to ensure their funding. While I do not assume that TAs are friends with their students on Facebook, and I’m sure undergrads complain about their TAs, too, where I come from it is considered bad form to post anything written by someone else. Without attribution, it’s plagiarism – without context, it’s ridicule.
The second issue is transparency. I’ll be completely open: I think the GSC is doing truly excellent work for all graduate students, a lot of which goes unnoticed, but without which the grad community would not be nearly as healthy as it is today. The GSC’s work has helped make this year at Brown an experience I will cherish. I also have friends who serve as its officers.
But I will play devil’s advocate – as of late, there have been some dissenting voices about election procedures. To name a recent example, students suggested that an external committee to select the Commencement speaker would have been wise. The exact reasoning – or rather the lack thereof – behind the GSC’s decision was named as one concern. Was the deciding factor rhetorical skill, departmental background, service to the community or what? Similarly problematic is the fact that they selected the former GSC vice-president, who is leaving his PhD position at Brown and is now representing hundreds as a tribute to the University. The graduate community at Brown is small, and the number of active members in the GSC is even smaller. Naturally, the most likely candidates for Commencement speaker are those who take graduate concerns to heart, and therefore the selection committee often knows the candidates personally. But their selection still raises eyebrows.
When Christina Paxson was selected as the University’s president-elect, Chancellor Thomas Tisch ’76 informed the gathered audience and press not only about her qualifications, but also about her brother’s link to the University and the recommendation letter he received from the head of the Corporation. “I don’t know if I should say this because somebody might think there’s a conflict” were his exact words.
Had Chancellor Tisch not been straightforward and had the link been discovered in retrospect, then people would truly think there was a conflict. The administration’s careful handling of the situation underscores that transparency is of the utmost importance in a university.
It is logical that the GSC should select a candidate that has actively labored to improve the graduate experience, and I have no doubts that the decision was deliberative and the speaker worthy. A personal connection is by no means indicative of partiality per se, but the fact that it has become a topic of conversation at all could have been prevented with more transparency.
Last Saturday, I was once again reminded what great things can spring from collaboration across levels and why I like Brown so much. A friend and I attended “A Perfect Wedding” and were absolutely blown away by the performances. It was new, yet old – a very modern adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – and all performers excelled. This play embodied the University in its ideal form: a perfectly integrated effort of grads, undergrads and faculty, along with a keen eye for tradition and a commitment to innovation. It has been a privilege to work within a University that not only values creativity and innovation in all facets of academic and social life, but also actively fosters it. I hope the GSC keeps this in mind as it makes plans for the next academic year.
Suzanne Enzerink GS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.