Hu ’18 and Rowland ’17: A letter from the editors

By and
Opinions Editors
Thursday, April 28, 2016

As opinions editors, we have a vested interest in how the Brown community forms and expresses opinions. And as Brown students, we acknowledge that our privilege affords us the opportunity to deeply explore topics of importance, whether that takes place at 2 a.m. in a Keeney lounge or with a professor in office hours. Students approach the craft and expression of their opinions differently for various topics, weighing their perceptions of how the issue in question affects them, and conversely, their roles in the larger dialogue. This is responsible, for the most part.

But when we fail to arrive upon a well-articulated and thoughtful conclusion about a hot topic because it doesn’t apply to us or it’s not our place to say, we are doing ourselves a disservice. And these failures aggregate to create a climate where some students are hyper-informed and expressive on a given issue while their classmates seem downright passive in comparison.

When students are underinformed, the campus sentiment is unfairly warped. The Herald’s spring poll asked students how informed they feel on campus events. On a (relatively) controversial area of interest — approval of President Christina Paxson’s P’19 job performance — The Herald found that 46.1 percent of students polled as strongly or somewhat approving of how Paxson is handling her job. But more interestingly, students who considered themselves at least somewhat informed were 20.5 percentage points more likely to approve of Paxson in comparison to those who considered themselves somewhat or very uninformed. Self-reported well-informed students are significantly more likely to look favorably upon Paxson, which could be good news for her, depending on how you look at it.

These data suggest an extremely obvious finding: Being informed affects the opinion you hold. But it’s important to see how the numbers fall in this case. It’s a rare occurrence to hear a student come to Paxson’s defense: It’s much more fun to critique her and lump the administrators into an anonymous, problematic blob. In reality, her approval rating is virtually on par with President Barack Obama’s. But you would never know, and it almost doesn’t matter because this attitude fails to permeate campus dialogue. Sorry, CPax.

This disparity between students who consider themselves well-informed (which constitutes a majority) and general campus sentiment is confusing. Such a general acceptance of the status quo that contradicts Brown students’ otherwise well-deserved reputation for curiosity and critical thought.

Of course, it may not always be appropriate or productive for everyone’s voice to clutter the conversation. There are times when we don’t have anything original to add or, more seriously, when our voices may silence others’. But this is no excuse for apathy. Though it’s impossible to formulate sophisticated opinions on every issue under the sun, we can still resolve to meet a certain threshold.

The cancellation of the Janet Mock lecture falls within this threshold. Though it elicited polarizing opinions, everyone can agree that the incident was one of the most significant controversies on campus this semester. It was also well-publicized through various channels — campus-wide emails, Herald articles and social media posts. Even students who considered themselves out of touch with campus issues would have had a hard time ignoring it entirely. But 39 percent of students reported that they had no opinion on the issue. Even more surprisingly, of the students who had no opinion on the talk, 83.7 percent considered themselves very or somewhat informed on campus events. How is this possible?

Perhaps students feel that they need some sort of intimate or emotional connection to an issue to take a hard stance. While having this certainly sheds an invaluable perspective on issues, it does not diminish the need for others to consider their stances as well. And you can form a thoughtful opinion without having to scream it from the rooftops. But not feeling qualified to vocalize an opinion does not disqualify you from having one.

And it is natural that we take heightened interest on topics of personal nature. But while specific issues may directly affect some individuals more than others, all ultimately impact the Brown community at large. We’re all guilty of overlooking the less sexy issues on our campus — we’re pretty sure very few people regularly read The Herald’s writeups of weekly Undergraduate Council of Students meetings, which while not flashy, are crucial, as they cover the most direct connection we students have to the administration. In the last UCS elections, almost every position went uncontested, illustrating a lack of investment in our choices for how our views are represented to administrators.

Each one of us has a responsibility to care about how meaningful dialogues play out in all spheres of our campus. This is no easy task, but it is something we can help foster with targeted efforts, from keeping up with campus matters  to having the patience to think critically about our perspectives. We know our peers, and we know that they aren’t apathetic or disengaged. Let’s make the broader dialogue reflect that.

Margaret Hu ’18 and Lainie Rowland ’17 are somewhat informed and can be reached at and

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