University News

Alums’ reactions to campus activism divided

Alums’ opinions diverge across generations, campus activism influences some donors

news editor
Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Student activism over the last two years has contributed to substantial changes on campus, including the recently released final draft of the University’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, the renaming of Fall Weekend to Indigenous People’s Day and the University’s firing of a Department of Public Safety officer accused of assaulting a visiting Latinx student. Amidst this activism, alums have looked on at a University very different than the one they knew when they walked through the Van Wickle Gates.

Reactions to student activism

“(There’s) this build up over time of feeling like you’re not being heard,” said Alyse Ruiz ’09, president of the Latino Alumni Council. While working as a Minority Peer Counselor when she was a student, Ruiz facilitated many discussions regarding students’ lived experiences at Brown. But she did not see any organized student activism comparable to that of the last few semesters.

The activism on campus seems to occur in cycles, said Sheryl Brissett-Chapman ’71, president-elect of the Inman Page Black Alumni Council.

But this time around, the activism on campus reflects a national movement. When Brissett-Chapman participated in the 1968 Black Walkout — in which African-American students at Brown and Pembroke left campus to protest the University’s lack of concern for black students — activism on campus felt much more isolated from the national backdrop, she said.

Dec. 3, students gathered in University Hall to confront President Christina Paxson P’19 regarding their demands to build a more inclusive space on campus.

The methods of activism exhibited were “a little disheartening,” said Amber Oliver ’97.

“A lot of people are very unhappy with the way Brown is moving,” said Louis Schepp ’71. He added that students have exercised “a lack of civility to people with contrary opinions” to their own.

“Some of (the activists’) behaviors toward the provost and the president have discredited them,” said Derek Knop ’97.

“There’s a real focus on feelings not being hurt that … may be specific to this cohort of students,” he added.

“These college students, who are so easily offended, are not going to be able to survive in the real world,” Schepp said.

While students may have felt that Paxson was not particularly accessible, “there has to be mutual respect on both sides,” Oliver said.

But others feel that students’ strong emotion was an appropriate response to the way they have been treated by the University. “It comes out of this frustration of having these lived experiences,” Ruiz said.

“Students might have reflected or have come to realize that the action they took during the fall got the University to listen, but was also a learning experience in terms of what methods of protest get the institution to act,” said Tho Phan ’11, president-elect of the Asian/Asian-American Alumni Alliance, or A4. Students may have also gained critical knowledge about how different parts of the University’s management came together to respond to their demands.

Oliver advocated for a method of “coalition building,” in which activists could choose several student representatives from within their ranks to meet closely with administrators.

“If there had been something like that, it would have been just the learning experience you’d want to have,” Oliver said.

While Oliver was on campus, she felt that activism tended to come from small groups, representing minority students. She said that she was disappointed to see that this has not changed nearly 20 years after she graduated, adding that she was sad to see “how segregated the campus feels.”

“Why isn’t the Brown community coming forward?” she said. While she was proud to see that minority students were speaking out, she expressed the need for the entire Brown community to come together in solidarity, expressing together their demands for the community.

“The more people who come behind a movement, the better,” Oliver said. “If you want meaningful change in this country, you need to have the majority come behind it.”

But Jo’Nella Queen Ellerbe ’15 said that when she was a student, she felt the support of allies from different communities across the University. She cited last year’s die-in protesting the killings of young black men across the country as an event that was attended by a number of white students, even though the organizers and the majority of the participants were students of color.

“The people in the forefront should be people of color,” Ellerbe said, while still encouraging allies to be a part of the protest. But those students most affected by an issue should be those “speaking the loudest and having agency.”

Students “have every right to the University. I think sometimes underrepresented students forget that,” said Justin Coles ’11, secretary of the IPC.

“I’d like to see the day that we don’t need to protest because we’re all being treated equally,” said Tiffani Scott ’98, president of the IPC.

Administrative changes

Oliver said she is proud of the gains that student activists have made, but fears that the changes, such as the renaming of Fall Weekend to Indigenous People’s Day, may be more “tokenistic” than truly meaningful. Still, she is impressed that “a relatively small group was able to bring about some change.”

“It’s a really nice indication of what’s possible at Brown and isn’t possible at some places,” she said.

But Schepp worries about the image that student activists are giving Brown and their impact on the University.

“Clearly the University overreacted,” Schepp said with regard to the DIAP.

“There may be a disagreement on what improvement looks like,” Knop said. “At minimum, alumni would like to be sure Brown’s reputation is sustained, if not advanced. Ultimately, we have to live with our diplomas. We don’t want those to be undermined.”

Schepp also said that he felt that Paxson too easily gave into the demands of students, particularly in the case of the alleged assault of a Latinx student by a DPS officer.

Her response — to address student concerns during that meeting and subsequently reschedule and pay for the conference — “was totally inappropriate,” Schepp said. “She showed no backbone.”

But Phan said those demands serve a greater purpose. “We should always work to build a better Brown,” he said. “And with building a better Brown, there are always going to be greater demands” from students.

Cass Cliatt, vice president of communications, said alums “in general are happy that the University is looking into this issue,” with regard to the DIAP. The Alumni Association will continue to inform alums about issues of diversity and inclusion on campus and how the University is working to combat them through the DIAP.

As representatives from Alumni Relations have hosted events across the country, they have witnessed the disparities in opinion by generation  have and actively worked to bring education to all sides of the conversation. “It’s all about sharing experience,” Cliatt said. “We recognize there will be differences, … but they are no different than the population at large.”

Alumni groups, such as A4 and the Latino Alumni Council, vocalized their own concerns with Paxson face-to-face. In meetings with her and through letters to the administration, they were able to advocate for initiatives that would make specific impacts within their communities.

“Now it’s up to the University to have built-in updates about where they are” in their progress, Ruiz said. She hopes that Paxson’s response will set the standards for the future of activism on campus.


The wave of campus activism directly follows Paxson’s October 2015 announcement of her BrownTogether $3 billion capital campaign.

Students at the call center who chose to remain anonymous cited multiple instances in which alums have chosen not to donate as a result of student activism in recent years.

The Annual Fund has one of the most direct connections to alums at the University: Every year, the fund reaches out to 100,000 alums and parents, most broadly through the call center. Besides asking for money, students at the call center also have the opportunity to address any concerns voiced by alums.

“On matters as complex as the ones that have generated headlines in the Brown community recently, the opinions shared by (alums) are as varied as those found across the country in the broader national conversation,” wrote Tammie Ruda, executive director of annual giving for the Annual Fund, in an email to The Herald.

Students working at the call center indicate why an alum chooses not to donate — for reasons ranging from insufficient funds to concern with the way Paxson is handling her job.

Ruda declined to comment on any data that the Annual Fund has collected concerning alums’ reasons for refusing to donate.

“In looking at overall results, the number of alumni who have given so far this year is very consistent with results from the same time last year,” Ruda wrote.

When staffers call graduates from the last decade, they are more likely to gather sympathy for students’ activist efforts, said one call center staffer.

Male graduates who graduated before 1971 — the year Brown became co-educational — often respond to calls with the catchphrase “Brown is really progressive now,” the staffer said. The connotation is generally negative.

Another staff member pointed out that though older alums may be worried about the direction Brown is moving in and refusing to donate, these may be the same alums who are upset that Brown started accepting students of color or became co-educational.

As fundraisers for the University, students working at the call center must be aware of activity on campus, particularly student activism, the staffer said. Because the only time alumni may be contacted by the University each year is through the call center, students working there are an “outlet for all of their frustrations and concerns,” she added.

“It’s all these changes they’re not a part of,” the staffer said.

Knop said that recent events have been on his mind as he has considered donating to Brown. Other alums, whether they agree with the actions of students and administrators or not, indicated similar skepticism.

Schepp, who was asked by the University to help fundraise, said he declined to support the University until he’s satisfied with Paxson’s management.

“I can’t ask people to send money to Brown that is then going to be turned around,” he said. For now, Schepp will contribute donations to sports, where he feels more confident his money will be used in ways he approves.

Ellerbe, who graduated last year, said conversations with fellow alums have indicated their appreciation for Brown, as well as skepticism concerning how their donations would be allocated.

“I love Brown, but I’m not sure,” she said. “If and when I have that monetary privilege where I can make a big donation and want to, I definitely hope it goes toward somewhere I feel that it’s needed.”

— With additional reporting by Shira Buchsbaum

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Amber Oliver ’97 said activism during her time on campus seemed to come from small, homogeneous groups of minority students. In fact, she said the efforts came from small groups representing minority students. Also, the article originally stated that Jo’Nella Queen Ellerbe ’15 referred to a die-in held last year on campus as having been attended “in equal numbers by both people of color and white students.” In fact, the die-in was organized and attended predominantly by people of color, though some white students did participate. The Herald regrets the errors.