Columns

Kumar ’17: Reviewing Brown’s changing goals

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, November 4, 2016

How should Brown evolve? This question — easy to pose, maddening to answer — sits at the center of the financial plan for the University as detailed by Provost Richard Locke P’17 Oct. 4. The plan calls for limiting the undergraduate population to 1,650 admitted students per year and correspondingly expanding graduate programs, cutting costs and altering the financial aid model to better accommodate middle-class students and withdrawing a smaller fraction of the endowment as it grows via the BrownTogether capital campaign. The changes will cause the University deficit to rise temporarily to $32 million before falling, ultimately, to as low as $1 million. To account for this spike in the deficit, the University may raise tuition and fees by 5 percent, higher than the typical 4 percent annual hike.

Duncan Weinstein ’17 criticized Locke’s plan in an op-ed — which Locke responded to in a letter to The Herald the following week — arguing that it is unwise for Brown to imitate its more graduate-focused, richly endowed “peer institutions,” namely Dartmouth, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Though the numbers don’t lie, Weinstein’s statement that “in purely monetary terms, we are as much a peer of these institutions as David was a peer of Goliath” fails to consider the nuances of “peer.” Brown may not be a peer of these universities in terms of endowment or emphasis on grad school, but it is in caliber. The University’s ambition to grow its graduate programs and thus ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is admirable and necessary to safeguard the high-quality education and prestigious reputation that most Brown undergraduates cherish, whether they admit it or not.

Indeed, prestige is a consideration that should not be underestimated. More than three-quarters of respondents to The Herald’s fall undergraduate poll cited college rankings as a factor in their decision to attend Brown, and nearly a third said that rankings were a strong factor. Brown’s weakness in relation to its peers in many college rankings — including U.S. News and World Report, Academic Rankings of World Universities and QS World University Rankings — derives from its relative dearth of graduate programs. Because these rankings depend heavily on university research output, addressing Brown’s shortcomings in graduate programs will allow a more accurate position in the rankings system — one that reflects the true rigor and value of a Brown education.

Yet it would be superficial to identify reputation for its own sake as the primary motivation for altering the University’s structure. The world-renowned undergraduate experience that Brown offers, lauded by Weinstein, must be treasured and preserved. But a shift in administrative focus to graduate programs need not represent a threat to undergraduate education. Rather, such a change has the potential to strengthen the University’s scholarly ecosystem, creating a more stimulating research environment from which undergraduates, too, can benefit. At the same time, undergraduates can only gain from this new model if the university-college framework is adhered to — as I discussed in my previous column about the new graduate student reading room in the Rockefeller Library. An expansion of graduate programs should not mean that the College and the Graduate School develop as two separate entities. It is important to continue to foster interaction and collaboration between undergraduates and graduate students even as the composition of the student body shifts.

Though the direction proposed by Locke is, in my view, promising, the possibility of a 5 percent annual increase in tuition and fees for undergraduates is concerning. Already, the habitual 4 percent annual rise is well above inflation, and there seems to be no maximum to the cost of Brown in the future. While the value of a Brown education ultimately still exceeds its enormous cost, it is necessary to consider the extent to which its ballooning price tag does or will discourage brilliant students from applying or matriculating to Brown, even in spite of the University’s generous financial aid policy. As the total annual cost approaches $70,000 and then $80,000 and beyond, the University must reckon with the manner in which it perpetuates inequality even as it serves as a critical channel for upward mobility.

In addition, I question the plan’s intention to limit faculty growth in the short run. Since faculty play an important role in attracting graduate students, it seems counterproductive for the University to slow the growth of one while accelerating the growth of the other. I understand that high-quality faculty members don’t come for cheap and thus represent a significant part of the budget — the deficit of which the financial plan targets. But there is still room for improvement among Brown’s world-class faculty. Just this year, the Department of French Studies lost one of its longest-serving, chaired professors to Yale (one of Brown’s peers!). In order for the French department and others to continue to recruit graduate students of the highest caliber, the University ought to prioritize faculty growth as well.

As a mere undergraduate, I know relatively little about how the University functions as a business and how administrators make the billion-dollar budget work. I trust that we are in competent hands and appreciate Locke’s commitment to transparency and community engagement. It’s for that reason that I urge my fellow students to consider the new financial plan and its ramifications for the continuing evolution of Brown. Each of us has a stake in the University’s future and can lend our voice to the ongoing dialogue on where our collective priorities should lie.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu.

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