University News

Changes to Swearer draw mixed reactions

Strategic plan met with administrative support, frustration from some students active in center

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2016

According to a strategic plan draft released March 2, the Swearer Center is undergoing changes under new leadership. Plans to change several programs have been met with student opposition.

The Swearer Center for Public Service is set to experience a number of changes to its practical goals and policies, according to the strategic plan draft released by the center March 2. The plan is the first to be released by the Swearer Center in over 10 years and was announced months after Mathew Johnson, director of the Swearer Center and associate dean for engaged scholarship, assumed his office.

The plan includes a number of proposed alterations to existing center practices, including an expansion of the Engaged Scholars Program and the introduction of the Bonner Fellows Program. Founded in 2015, the Engaged Scholars Program mixes curricular studies and community engagement to benefit students’ academic and service work, Johnson said.

The Bonner Fellows Program will allow incoming freshmen and a number of current undergraduates to participate in extended community engagement and academic opportunities. Johnson said that 75 percent of Bonner Fellows will be low-income or first-generation students, and the program will gradually be expanded in the coming years.

“There’s pretty wide positive support from University leadership, faculty (members) and from community partners,” Johnson said. “But there is a difference of opinion among a smaller group of students who are very concerned about the directions of the center moving forward,” he added.

Indeed, some students expressed qualms with the changes Johnson is proposing.

“The heart of the issue of why we are frustrated is that decisions were made that were not inclusive of us as coordinators, tutors and community members,” said Maria Isabel Diaz ’17, a Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment community fellow. Specifically, students were not made aware of changes to the center until the end of the formulation process, she said, adding that in her case, that was at the end of January at a community fellows retreat.

“We were told in a 15-minute announcement that our leadership would be cut from six to four,” said Ricardo Jaramillo ’18, a BRYTE coordinator. Uncertainty and alarm about the future of the BRYTE program led student coordinators to meet with members of the Swearer Center the next day, he said, adding that the group also met with Dean of the College Maud Mandel to discuss members’ concerns.

Those concerns were multifaceted. For one, coordinators raised concerns over the uncertainty of future funding. Administrators have agreed to continue funding BRYTE at its current level over the next academic year, but the organization will be under evaluation during that time, Diaz said.

This financial situation is a great deal better than the alternative for some other groups. BRYTE is “taking one of the lowest cuts,” Diaz said. “There are programs that are not sure if they’ll even exist in the fall,” she added.

Students also raised concerns about the future of student-based groups that have historically operated out of the Swearer Center, as the strategic plan lays out plans to connect many student groups with organizations outside of the University.

The plan also aims to change the center’s relationships with community agencies by putting students in closer contact with them, Johnson said. Johnson advocates this model because the agencies are ultimately better equipped to deal with the specific problems that students aim to address with their work. He added that no one in the Swearer Center has “the expertise to appropriately and ethically support students” in projects where there is an alternative available in a community organization.

But involving community agencies may also create problems of its own. “It’s very clear that someone made this plan without having a standing relationship and familiarity with organizations in Providence,” Jaramillo said. “A lot of times, these organizations are underfunded and can’t handle taking on another arm of their program.”

Changes to the center have also put a strain on student coordinators as they navigate working within a transitioning organization.

“These have been the hardest two weeks of my life,” Jaramillo said. Responses to changes to the BRYTE program have included long planning meetings with community partners to ensure that information had been appropriately disseminated across groups and that there is a cohesive plan for the organization moving forward, he added. The struggle of balancing community service commitments and schoolwork led Jaramillo to request a dean’s note for missed work.

“I’m behind in work for half of my classes because of the announcement of changes to our program,” Diaz said, adding that she also received a dean’s note explaining to professors the work she had done to address the changes presented in the strategic plan and requesting appropriate accommodations. “I know a lot of people who don’t like Mathew Johnson very much right now,” she added.

The Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring program experienced an overhaul three years ago that was “at many times scary and nerve-wracking,” said Emma Schrager ’16, a community fellow for BEAM. Amid substantial changes, it was difficult to take part in leading an organization that looked fundamentally different than it had the year before.

But the work of strategic plans is ultimately necessary, Schrager said, adding that in BEAM’s case, “it really benefitted the program.” Considering this, she said that “changes to the community program are going to be really good for the community and the students’ experiences.”

Johnson stressed that the current plan is a rough draft and is by no means in its final form. Though some community members were initially disheartened by the proposals of the strategic plan, they have indicated that they will continue to cooperate with the Swearer Center to draft a more widely agreeable document in the future. Already, it seems as if “things are mobilizing in a positive direction,” Diaz said.

“It’s a community service center, so everyone should be on the same side,” Jaramillo said. “We just want to make sure these changes don’t negatively affect anyone who’s on the receiving end of services from the center,” he added.

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