In debate over records, a glimpse back in time

By
Thursday, October 16, 2008

When the Corporation convenes this weekend for its annual October meeting, its decisions will impact people from all walks of University life.

But anyone anxious to learn more about the proceedings will have to wait nearly a lifetime to properly scrutinize this year’s meeting of the University’s top governing body – the minutes, reports and addresses that comprise the Corporation’s official records are kept confidential for 50 years.

The policy of sealing documents for decades after they are recorded has been in place for years and is “a fairly standard archival policy for records of this type,” according to Senior Vice President for Corporation Affairs and Governance Russell Carey ’91 MA’06.

That confidentiality is crucial to fostering open discussion and allows Corporation members to speak candidly, said Chancellor Thomas Tisch ’76, the Corporation’s top official.

“For any board, whether it is an industrial corporation, a not-for-profit, or a university, to have a full and open discussion of critical issues … requires some confidentiality for some period of time,” Tisch said. “It’s a very elemental principle of governance in any operation that there has to be opportunity for full and free discussion.”

But members of Students for a Democratic Society have recently criticized the policy through letters to the Corporation and a public march. They argue it suppresses student voices and limits Corporation accountability.

“We have no possible way of knowing what is going on in these meetings,” SDS member Ellen Pederson ’12 said. “These decisions could be very real for us and we’ll have no idea until they’re upon us.”

One reason SDS is pressuring the University to release the records immediately after the meeting is so that the community can hold referenda on the Corporation’s decisions. The group has also demanded that the meetings be open to anyone who wants to participate.

“It’s our school. It should be up to us how it’s run,” said SDS member Sophia Lambertsen ’11, a former Herald staff writer. “It’s not the Corporation members whose education is going to be compromised.”

Carey said the Corporation is reviewing its policies with a focus on “issues of representation and membership,” but affirmed that the meetings have always been private and will continue to be that way.

“The corporation meeting is closed,” he said. “And it’s going to remain closed.”

But each time the Corporation closes a door, it opens a window: With each new set of records made confidential, a past set is made public.

The arrival of the Corporation this fall offers a new glimpse 50 years back in time.

U. Hall ‘Confidential’

The year was 1958 and the University was under the leadership of President Barnaby Keeney, who was three years into his 11-year term. The quadrangle that would later bear his name had opened one year earlier.

That year, 33 trustees and nine fellows met from Oct. 10 to 11 – nine trustees and three fellows couldn’t make it.

According to that meeting’s minutes, marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” the first order of business that Saturday was to re-elect Chancellor Harold Tanner 1909, whose term had just expired. The motion passed without fanfare and with the concurrence of the fellows and the trustees, who act as a bicameral governing body and must agree on Corporation decisions.

The Corporation then heard reports from a number of committees, including a budgetary update by the treasurer and Investment Committee and a request for a roof by the Hockey Rink Building Committee. The proposed rink – now Meehan Auditorium – was originally going to be open-air, but the committee had recently learned that a roofless rink would be unplayable most of the year. The committee’s cheekily glum update announced “there is very little to report and all of it is discouraging.”

The highlight of the meeting seems to have been Keeney’s presidential address, for which the fellows voted to “express gratification for the enlightenment and inspiration it has given the entire Corporation.”

One of the key points of his speech was an assessment of the University’s progress toward its goals for the Bicentennial Fund, an ancestor of the Campaign for Academic Enrichment that was to raise $30 million by 1964, Brown’s bicentennial. At the time, the fund was behind schedule and Keeney conscientiously pointed the finger at himself.

“The Bicentennial Fund has not gotten off to a very good start. My own inexperience and a lack of clarity about what had to be done have been largely to blame,” he said. “Because 1964 seems so far off, a sense of urgency has been lacking, and the goal is so large as to seem almost indefinite.”

Yesterday, Tisch said it is this sort of candor that is essential to Corporation meetings but would be jeopardized by direct public access.

It wasn’t always this way. The first Corporation record from 1764 – or “the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Four, and Fourth of the Reign of His Most Sacred Majesty George the Third, by the Grace of God, King of Great-Britain, and so forth” – is simply the charter establishing the University.

Records from the following years are only a few pages each, and consist mostly of filling vacancies and appointing officials, such as James Manning, the University’s first president. The second year’s record contains instructions on procuring a University seal – “busts of the King and Queen in profile, face to face.” The record from 1767 logs the payment of Manning’s 25-pound salary, and 1768’s record mentions that a telescope and microscope had been ordered.

But two centuries later, the Corporation’s reams of records are rife with examples of members speaking under the assumption of confidentiality.

In the 1958 report of the Executive Committee of the Bicentennial Development Program, Chairman D.G. Millar ’19 points to a number of “symptoms” that account for the fund’s slow progress, including “a seeming lack of urgency on the part of Bicentennial Program workers.”

The same year’s report of the Lectureships Committee, delivered by C.A. Robinson, Jr., recounts “a Colver lecture by a famous Princeton mathematician whose name I forget on a subject which I was unable to pronounce.”

But perhaps the most striking example are remarks by Keeney about the role of students in the governance of the school that echo today’s debate.

“Many good students have assured views on every question whether they know anything about it or not. How much should we listen to them when they tell us what to do?” he said. “I think that we should listen with great care, but we should ourselves decide whether to pay attention or not, since they have hired us to develop them.”

“Just as a doctor can serve his patient by listening to his complaints, so a faculty can help a student by listening to his views,” Keeney continued. “One of the ironies of education for democracy is that frequently it is best presented in an authoritarian manner.”

Open records: too much or not enough?

In 2008, some SDS members feel Keeney’s analogy is flawed and his view of the Corporation is dangerous.

“When I go to the doctor, I say, ‘This hurts, something’s wrong with me,’ I don’t stand around the hospital and hope someone comes and does something for me,” said Atilio Barreda ’12, of SDS.

Pederson agreed. “They’re not the doctor. They’re the person who sits in the room across the hall from the doctor and looks at a computer,” she said.

Though he praised Keeney for helping to “give birth to the modern Brown,” Tisch himself said the Corporation’s current philosophy doesn’t quite align with Keeney’s view.

Instead, Tisch said the administration values student voices and actively seeks them out.

“Students are fundamentally responsible for shaping their education and have things to contribute to the community,” he said. “There are more avenues for student voices and inputs to the governance of the University than in virtually any other community like Brown.”

SDS has demanded further student influence, either through student members of the Corporation or the dissolution of the Corporation entirely. Though they are adamant that records be opened, that reform “wouldn’t be good enough at all,” Lambertsen said. In the view of SDS members, issues of transparency are part and parcel with improving access and representation.

“By locking their doors to us, they’re not working in anyone’s best interests,” Lambertsen said, adding that she questions the Corporation’s authority, not its members’ intentions.

“I don’t think that the worry is that they’re bad decisions,” she said. “It’s that they’re making decisions they don’t have the right to make.”

Tisch said such a scenario would not lend itself to proper governance and could devolve into a fight over inclusion and jurisdiction.

“I don’t want to diminish the sense of student voices, but you could say as well, ‘Have the faculty on the Corporation,'” he said, adding that he thinks limits have to be defined somewhere. “The drawing of the lines is the critical point.”

Tisch also emphasized that the lack of a student presence on the Corporation “doesn’t mean the Corporation shouldn’t be accessible and accountable,” he said. “The decisions of the Corporation are put under scrutiny every day.”

But Lambertsen said the University should be run through a “participatory democracy” that includes anyone affected by the decisions. “We want everyone to have control of the school.”

She and other SDS members plan to protest this Saturday’s meeting outside of University Hall, and Lambertsen said they “expect to be accepted with open arms and open doors.”

Lambertsen wouldn’t say what SDS would do if that expectation is not met, but Tisch said he hopes the demonstration will be civil. Last month, SDS members took over the monthly board meeting of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, protesting fare hikes and proposed service cuts.

“Students, like all of us, have the right to express themselves,” he said. “Hopefully there’s the recognition that there are constructive ways of doing it.”

But Tisch is unlikely to be surprised by any action taken by SDS – he has considered a few possibilities. Recalling an incident last spring when a lecture by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was interrupted by pastry throwers, Tisch asked with a smile, “Do I deserve a pie?”

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