William Janover: A new kind of school spirit

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Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

Brown has found itself atop many rankings lists, some more useful than others. We’re infamous for having once been the university with the happiest students, and we’ve done it while apparently being pretty smart and sexy, too.

None of those rankings, however, would ever deem us a spirited student body. That’s a Duke or Alabama thing. Brunonians often take an ironic sort of pride in their lack of school spirit. We ham it up for “Brown State;” we don’t even know the fake words to our fight song; most of us have no clue what our football team’s record is.

I believe Brown students’ lack of school spirit is a serious problem, and it’s making our campus less engaged, less united and less safe.

When I talk about school spirit, I’m talking about something that means so much more than supporting a sports team. This isn’t about how many people showed up for the night game against Harvard. It isn’t about whether or not you’ve given to the Senior Gift Committee (though you should!). This is about how much stock each of us takes in the label “Brown Student.” Right now, that trait, just about the only thing that we have in common — except, perhaps, a love for Dave Binder — doesn’t matter as much as it should. This campus is without question more divided than it was when I came here.

No issue has incited more rage and controversy — and rightly so — than how the University treats survivors of sexual assault. It has spawned countless Herald opinions columns and counter-columns, two organized campaigns, a task force and multiple national news stories. Somewhere in the middle, the Janus Forum hosted two speakers. One of them held controversial views on rape culture, and you probably know the rest.

Over spring break, Judith Shulevitz published an article in the New York Times that insulted two of my classmates for their views on “safe spaces” while discussing this talk. In doing so, the article tried to muddy the names of these Brown students who simply want to make campus safer. School spirit means protecting our own from spiteful, condescending attacks like this one, regardless of your political views. It was disappointing to see so few people defending those two students, even if they had opposing ideas on the merits of “safe spaces.”

I felt the same way in the aftermath of Hyoun Ju Sohn’s GS death this March. While everyone deals with these tragedies differently, I couldn’t help but think more Brown students should have been at the vigil on the Main Green that evening. Not just because seeing University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson speak is one of life’s great pleasures, but also because Sohn was one of us. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t an undergrad, and it doesn’t matter if you had never met him. He was a Brunonian.

This sort of school spirit isn’t the easiest thing to embrace. I write all of this as someone who has not always loved Brown. There have been times where I have been positively baffled by the decisions of our school’s administration. I’ve found myself in classes, activities and relationships that felt like dead ends. You can’t always be overflowing with spirit for any school.

But none of this has ever made me lose faith in the part of this school that matters most: my fellow students. The only thing more impressive than the range of things to which we commit ourselves is the remarkable nature of what we build once we do so. Who besides Fox News interviewer Jesse Watters couldn’t love a group like us?

To those who are lucky enough to have at least another year here: I hope you take some time to help build an even more loving campus than we have now. Make the title “Brown student” mean even more. Push this university to the top of one more useless ranking.

To the class of 2015: I hope you know that I would go to battle for each and every one of you, simply because we shared these four years. And I know there are hundreds of people out there who feel the same way. In just a few days, we will walk out the Van Wickle Gates and out to every corner of the world. My greatest hope for each of you, more than love or health or professional or personal bliss, is that, 30 years from now, when you walk down the street and see a man with salt-and-pepper hair wearing a white crew-neck sweatshirt with that instantly recognizable seal and red block letters that incongruously scream BROWN, you will smile and say, “Ever True.”

William Janover will be moving to New York this summer, where he will continue to plan for the coming “Bartlet for America” presidential campaign.