To many community members, the Swearer Center for Public Service — home to over 100 student-run community programs — is probably among the lesser-known parts of the University, but its relative obscurity might belie the sweeping implications of its recent reorientation. Last year, the Swearer Center began to implement the provisions of its long-term strategic plan. The plan places a premium on combining academic learning with community engagement, pairing all Swearer Center programs with relevant “community partners” and establishing long-term relationships between students and the communities they serve. These changes were intended to address pressing concerns that have chronically plagued Swearer Center programs — volunteer turnover, elitism and program redundancy — and the Center should be commended for recognizing and seeking to address these issues.
However, the broader reorientation is a case study in how not to implement an ambitious reform program. Indeed, Swearer Center administrators have demonstrated an almost cavalier disregard for the effects of their changes on the established programs under their supervision. A lack of transparency, an inflexible commitment to “best practices” and an unwillingness to cooperate with student community fellows have created an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty certain to discourage student community engagement. While the purpose of the Swearer Center is to help Brown students engage meaningfully with the Providence and Rhode Island communities as effectively as possible, its patronizing and rigid approach to modernization undermines not only its own objectives but the efforts of the students working in it.
Perhaps the most glaring issue with the Swearer Center’s efforts so far has been its inflexibility in adopting what it considers “best practices.” These reforms are often well-intentioned and, in fact, seem poised for success with many programs, but the Swearer Center has all but rejected the extenuating circumstances of certain programs that may demand modification or even obviate the need for changes at all. That there is no paucity of examples only underscores the center’s unaccommodating approach to modernization. For example, the Swearer Center has clashed with community fellows over geographically centralizing certain programs — that is, moving the community population to a single location and working with it there. This arrangement may seem logical, but, upon further inspection, actually evinces what is, at best, ignorance of the conditions of the communities served or, at worst, rank classism. Requiring certain community populations to travel to centralized locations is often unworkable and expensive, which makes the program functionally inaccessible. Indeed, as The Herald has reported, this has been the case for certain programs like the Outdoor Leadership Environmental Education Program, whose current model of traveling to the students served, rather than the other way around, leaves both the program and its community partner, the Met High School, content.
Even more notoriously, the Swearer Center has demonstrated a similar unwillingness to consider the concerns of the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment program. The cornerstone of BRYTE’s engagement model is one-on-one, in-home tutoring. Yet, the Swearer Center demanded that they replace this model with a geographically localized model, citing issues like liability and effectiveness. However, this disrupts the pedagogical model of a program that has seen extreme success. Ultimately, the Swearer Center’s obstinance forced BRYTE to seek alternative sponsorship. Fortunately, it has since partnered with the Alpert Medical School, but the Swearer Center’s willingness to abandon its largest tutoring program demonstrates a dangerous and unsettling reluctance to cooperate with its student liaisons.
Equally problematic is the Swearer Center’s willingness to make decisions without consulting student leaders — decisions that frequently pose serious obstacles to programs’ futures. For example, the Swearer Center, in an effort to gradually phase out the current crop of community fellows and replace them with Bonner fellows — members of a program that trains students in the type of community engagement espoused by Johnson and the Strategic Plan — has instructed several programs to reshape their leadership structures and cut community fellow positions, often with minimal consultation with existing community fellows. This type of opacity alienates students, foments distrust among community fellows and contributes to an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty. BRYTE is not alone in experiencing this type of neglect. As a volunteer with the Swearer Tutoring and Enrichment in Math and Sciences program, I’ve been able to observe myself the consequences of this lack of transparency. Budget cuts in fall 2016 have made even the most basic forms of community engagement beyond in-class tutoring, like workshops and holiday parties, impossible. Despite my deep involvement with the program, Swearer Center has neglected to explain to me or my fellow volunteers why the funding has been cut or where it’s been diverted.
It goes without saying that this type of reluctance to be transparent is not conducive to a healthy working environment and is profoundly patronizing. Johnson has noted that while the Swearer Center tries to incorporate the voices of students whenever possible, sometimes, “what students want contradicts best practices in the field.” This, however, both is inconsistent with what some community partners have expressed — recall that the Met High School was perfectly content with its arrangement with OLEEP, yet this did not stop the Swearer Center from intervening and does not address the fact that students are often not consulted when these decisions are made the first place.
Actual attempts by the Swearer Center to include student voices in its decision-making process have been hollow and superficial. For example, the Student Advisory Committee, which was established by Johnson following his arrival and is staffed by student participants in Swearer Center programs, is ostensibly charged with assisting the administrators in developing and implementing policy. However, according to several students involved, participation on the committee is wholly futile. As The Herald has reported, committee members have resigned in protest over the SAC’s lack of agency and frustration with the adminstrators’ disregard for the input of its members. Ultimately, rather than providing the Swearer center with a valuable source of student input, the SAC merely highlights the Center’s reluctance to seriously engage with students over what are often legitimate concerns.
None of this is to say that the Swearer Center’s plans for engaged scholarship or long-term student-community relationships are inherently destructive. The Swearer Center is right to address past problems such as insufficient volunteer commitments and community engagement neophytes trying to independently address community issues without the necessary skills or resources. To oppose these goals is to subscribe to a brand of institutional conservatism that is just as corrosive to the success of Brown’s community engagement as the Swearer Center’s fumbled reform efforts. But the sclerosis of the Swearer Center’s vision for reform and its divisive, alienating approach to implementation will surely continue driving out established programs at the expense of Brown’s volunteers. Perhaps most tragically, its reckless and tone deaf reorientation will ultimately disadvantage the very communities that the Swearer Center claims it assists, and for this, its administrators deserve the harshest opprobrium.
Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.