Columns

Meyer ’17: Paxson caught in the middle

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, December 2, 2016

During the election, journalists wrote that covering President-Elect Donald Trump created a conflict between their obligations of accuracy and balance. Writing about the plain facts of the campaign seemed biased against Trump because he was so grossly unqualified. “If Trump is outside the frame of conventional political discourse, how far outside the frame of conventional coverage does the media have to move?” Roger Cohen wondered in the New York Times. Most outlets eventually settled on honesty at the expense of neutrality, naming Trump as the fraud he was and is. They tried to print the truth even if that brought accusations of liberal bias. In September, covering the persistent birther myth, the Times used the word “lie” in a headline. From then on, they have used plain language to call out his deceits.

Universities face a similar dilemma. Trump puts intellectual diversity at odds with their other values of truth-seeking and inclusion. While many journalists rightly chose not to treat Trump with false equivalency, President Christina Paxson P’19 has stuck to neutral platitudes. “The last five days have seen the country and our campus coming to grips with the outcome of one of the most polarizing presidential election campaigns in memory. The tone, tenor and rhetoric of this election ran counter to our values as a community. No matter which candidate each of us supported, we must recognize that fully half of the voters in the country felt exactly the opposite of what we feel,” she wrote after the election. Her language implies that both candidates were responsible for the campaign’s tone, which is malarkey. Trump’s tenor ran counter to our values. Clinton’s largely ran with them (including her unappealing reliance on Wall Street donors).

If I wrote in this column that Mexican immigrants were rapists or if I belittled a disabled person, I would not get to write again. If I bragged about grabbing women by the pussy, I would be grabbed by a disciplinary committee. If I were accused of sexual assault by multiple women, I would (hopefully) get kicked out. If I denied climate science and refused to open a book, I would fail my classes. All of these behaviors are directly opposed to Brown’s institutional values. But when the culprit runs for president, he is sheltered by the veneer of political diversity. The student body isn’t a monolith, but we have recognized that Trump attacks Brown’s principles and its very role in society.

Why hasn’t Paxson followed the lead of Brown’s students and professors? Why could Columbia declare itself a sanctuary campus when we could not? We aren’t Paxson’s only or even primary constituency. First, she answers to her employers, the Corporation.

Depending on your perspective, the Corporation is composed of the leading members of American society or the new American oligarchy. Their personal interests are more conservative than those of Brown’s famously liberal student body. Former Chancellor Thomas Tisch ’76 P’18 has been listed as one of New York’s top Republican donors. Former Trustee Steven Cohen P’08 P’16, one of the University’s most prominent donors, gave generously to Chris Christie’s ill-fated campaign. My point here isn’t to vilify Republican donors or really rich people. It’s that there is a structural conflict between the student body and the school’s leadership. By definition, the standing and extreme wealth of most Corporation members means they benefit from the existing social status quo. Brown student activists are dedicated to upending it. Paxson sits in the middle, unwilling to confront either constituency.

The language of intellectual diversity allows Paxson and other administrators to avoid conflict with Trustees and conservative donors while expressing sympathy for students threatened by a Trump administration. But the result has been a series of watered-down emails in a time that calls for forceful words. When the president-elect makes a mockery of Brown’s community norms, Brown’s leader should say so. If the institution doesn’t have the confidence to advance its values into the outside world, then they are just playground rules.

For students, the lesson is that we can only expect so much from the school’s administration. Brown may feel like a progressive place, but its institutional structure is resistant to rapid or radical change. Students should look for steps that don’t require an administrator’s rubber stamp. Brown as an institution and Brown as a community are not the same thing. Students may not control the institution, but we have absolute ownership over the community.

Dan Meyer ’17 can be reached at daniel_meyer@brown.edu.

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