In response to last December’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., President Christina Paxson will sponsor a series of forums this spring intended to provoke a campus-wide dialogue concerning the causes and prevention of campus shootings. The plan represents a stronger response to gun violence from the University than any school shooting has previously provoked.
Developing a discussion
The Janus Forum, the student branch of the University’s Political Theory Project, is in the process of responding to a proposal from Paxson to focus a forum on gun violence.
“We wanted to let them take the lead on whatever they were thinking about, since we were still at the very early stages about thinking how (the dialogue) might come together and what formats it might take,” said Kimberly Roskiewicz, assistant to the president.
The Janus Forum provides “venues for frank and thoughtful discussions of potentially polarizing issues,” Paxson wrote in an email to The Herald. Students from the group are discussing how to approach the forum and will present their ideas to her early next week, she wrote.
“The Janus Forum way is to approach any issue with multiple perspectives. We have very few rules that we follow. Our one idea is that no idea goes unchallenged,” said Sam Gilman ’15, the chair of the Janus Forum Steering Committee. The committee has yet to meet this semester, but Gilman said he reached out to its members over winter break to brainstorm potential panels on gun violence. Mental health, legality, the Second Amendment and Congress are all possible lenses through which the forum can tackle the issue of gun violence, he said, though the major aspects of the plan have yet to be decided.
“Like most people, I think the level of gun violence in America is appalling. However, the right policy response has to be informed by analysis grounded in facts and an open discussion of values,” Paxson wrote in an email to The Herald. “I do not expect that the conversations we have on campus will lead to a specific conclusion or set of recommendations.”
The Janus Forum can effectively create discussion on campus because it currently boasts strong representation from both liberal and conservative viewpoints, Gilman said.
In September 2009, the forum held a debate on D.C. v. Heller, the landmark Supreme Court case that protected an individual’s right to own a firearm for lawful purposes. The panel featured a professor from Duke University who had contributed to the merit briefings for the District of Columbia and the lead counsel for Heller, the defendant. The forum comprised 25-minute lectures by each speaker and a question-and-answer session with a packed crowd in Salomon 101, The Herald reported at the time.
Politics of presidential power
It is often difficult for a university president to take a political stance as a private citizen, said Stephen Nelson, a higher education expert and scholar at the Leadership Alliance.
“Some might say, ‘Why are you speaking? You’re using the pulpit of Brown University. If you didn’t have the pulpit of Brown University, then you might not get recognized,’” Nelson said. “Wherever you put your name, your institutional title is right next to it.”
He cited the resignation of John William Ward from his position as Amherst College president after protesting the Vietnam War as a rare case in which a president would lose his or her job for taking a specific political stance.
“You can’t directly connect the dots,” Nelson added, “but within three months of having gone to that demonstration, he was no longer the president of Amherst.”
Nelson also distinguished between the political and humanitarian reactions presidents might have in response to events like Sandy Hook, the latter of which have been more common in the history of higher education. “It’s different to have boxes for relief than it is to protest a war. It’s not like we’re for or against the hurricane,” Nelson said in reference to Hurricane Sandy. He added, “Ruth Simmons gave remarks in response to 9/11, which is different from saying, ‘Let’s track the perpetrators down to the gates of Hell.’”
In the past, university presidents have been able to effect change without taking personal stances on national issues. Nelson cited former Dartmouth president John George Kemeny, who imposed a two-week moratorium on classes in response to the Kent State shootings, holding panels, forums and speakers about the war and national crisis engendered by the event. All the while, Dartmouth never made a statement decrying the war.
Nelson noted that, similar to Kemeny, Paxson took a stance in asserting the importance of the issue of gun violence without making an explicit statement by virtue of calling attention to the event in Newtown and asking for a campus-wide dialogue.
The 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech galvanized the planning and installation of the University’s current Emergency Siren Warning System — BrownSiren — along with several other efforts to improve security on campus. But this spring’s effort to steer the Janus Forum’s focus toward gun violence marks the first attempt by the University to hold panels or forums in response to shootings.
The Newtown shooting has garnered more attention from universities than the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. for myriad reasons, Nelson said. He cited the younger age of the students at Sandy Hook as well as the timing of the event — the Columbine shooting occurred at the end of a school year, whereas the Newtown shooting occurred near the end of first semester — as factors leading to the heightened attention paid to Newtown.
Brown and its peers
The Association of American Universities, which includes Brown, released a statement on gun violence in America earlier this month, suggesting to President Obama and Congress a three-pronged policy improvement of “gun control, care of the mentally ill and the culture of our contemporary media.” The AAU president drafted the statement, which was then approved by the executive committee of the AAU. Not all member universities were consulted before issuing the statement, which AAU Vice President for Public Affairs Barry Toiv ascribes to the “need to issue the statement as quickly as possible.”
“The AAU executive board is representative of and speaks for the entire membership,” Toiv added.
Toiv did not describe the AAU’s past responses to the issue of gun violence as “active,” but following Virgina Tech, the AAU did approve and release a statement that included a reference to modifying gun laws and regulations. But the organization did not issue a response to Columbine, as it did not take place on a university campus.
Separately from the AAU, many colleges and universities have taken their own steps in response to Sandy Hook. The University of Chicago was one of a few universities to respond swiftly to the Newtown shootings, hosting a panel about gun violence Jan. 15.
Emerson College President Lee Pelton drafted and distributed a pledge promising to lead campus discussions about gun violence this semester and offering help to Obama, who has made gun control a major initiative in his second term. The pledge has garnered the signatures of 269 other college presidents, though Paxson is not among them.