Columns

Asker ’17: Investing in people and places that matter

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, October 26, 2015

Late Friday night, the entire Brown community, including parents and alums, received an email from President Christina Paxson P’19 announcing the University’s new fundraising campaign, “BrownTogether.” The ambitious plan to raise $3 billion is meant to make possible many of the objectives outlined in Paxson’s strategic plan, “Building on Distinction,” and is the largest fundraising campaign in the University’s history. However intimidating the target amount of money may seem, the University has already raised nearly $1 billion — about a third of its goal — in a silent phase of the plan forerunning the public announcement. A chunk of this so-called “nucleus fund” is enabling the construction of the new $88 million engineering building, which had its groundbreaking Thursday.

As communicated by the fundraising website, the campaign’s message rings so vague and platitudinous as to appear meaningless. Indeed, the website is corny and redundant — the phrase “change the world” and tautologies thereof are repeated an embarrassing number of times in the promotional video. To be fair, however, it’s probably true that successful campaigns involve beating a stale drum — look no further than Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential race —  and as far as fundraising is concerned, surely it’s a virtue to be gimmicky. So let’s put aside the presentation and cut through all the fluff.

Some of the broad strokes of the campaign look promising. I’m happy with the plans to improve the physical spaces on campus: They’re both sensible and modest. According to the website, the Sharpe Refectory, libraries and some athletic facilities will be renovated in addition to the engineering building being constructed. We can all agree that these are necessary steps to sustaining our campus — for example, the Ratty’s infrastructure is run-down and outdated, and the engineering program really needs more space and new equipment.

As we move forward, however, we need to be leery of our focus drifting. Building grand facilities and providing extravagant amenities on top of the ones we already have may be seductive, but it’s not responsible.

Granted, new buildings and restoration are great if they’re needed. My point is that the renovation of the Ratty, for example, shouldn’t go beyond infrastructural repairs because we don’t really need anything more. Increasingly it feels like schools make additions to their campuses to compete for spoiled prospective students who expect to be pandered to like they might at a five-star hotel. We don’t want students whose college decisions hinge on the presence or absence of a shiny new dorm. In short, let’s ensure funding in this area goes toward things that sustain the University, not toward gaudy additions.

Moreover, it’s commendable that over a third of the funds will be invested in the people who make up the Brown community through things like increasing financial aid, expanding the number of endowed professorships and bolstering initiatives to recruit more faculty members from underrepresented groups. I’m all in for supporting faculty members and students. Without either group or their interaction, you wouldn’t have a university.

It makes sense to heavily and predominantly nurture the lifeblood of your institution. While we’re at it, let’s go even further than the plan outlines and provide better compensation for librarians, Brown Dining Services employees and Department of Facilities Management employees. But one thing we should absolutely not tolerate is a substantial portion of the funding in this area being siphoned off to feed a swelling administration — a scenario that is all too likely.

There is already an overgrown and untameable bureaucracy on this campus that turns everything from transfer credit to study abroad to leave-taking to financial aid into a drawn-out and burdensome process. Not to mention that palpable air of self-importance that administrators and their professional staff exude — never mind that in reality, they’re auxiliaries.

Of course there are some administrators who are integral to Brown’s functioning and who do a genuinely good job. And mind you, some governmental regulations have necessitated university bureaucracies. But in his book “The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters,” Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, argues that the rise in the number of administrators at universities over the past three decades has greatly outpaced the growth of student bodies and faculties over this time. You only need to glance at the University website that breaks down the number of Brown employees in each sector to see the unfortunate size to which our particular bureaucracy has grown.

What’s so pernicious in addition to increasing costs and wasting time, Ginsberg says, is that campus bureaucracy has crowded out professors, taking away a substantial amount of their decision-making power in determining things like their university’s main direction and even their own curriculums. Why is this so bad? Answering to and being guided by administrators makes professors subservient to the institution, when the opposite should be true: Administrators should serve only as supplemental means to the greater end of teaching and learning, to which professors are indispensable. So allowing administrative functions to grow even larger through this campaign would be a mistake because it would hand more control to marginally useful administrators — overbearing as is — and further marginalize faculty members.

If we’re going to fundraise, let’s be productive with the fruit. Instead of giving the public relations geniuses responsible for the promotional video and their staff a pay raise, let’s channel the money into the people who really matter on campus. We need to keep our priorities straight as the specifics of this very general plan are hashed out and executed, lest the wiggle room allowed by its vagueness cause us to stray from what’s good for us.

Nicholas Asker ’17 can be reached at nicholas_asker@brown.edu.

  • An Unimportant Administrator

    I have been a dedicated Brown administrator for over 10 years who has spent each workday (including many nights and weekends) focused on performing my role in the advancement of the University’s mission in a meaningful way. Until today, I thought I was actually helping, but apparently, in doing my job, I have been exuding a “palpable air of self importance” while siphoning from the University. In the future, Mr Asker ’17, I will try to do a better job (or perhaps, better yet, lose my job) and hopefully meet your expectations.