Two years later, slavery and justice response lags

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

After a wide-ranging and controversial three-year effort, a University committee released a report in 2006 detailing Brown’s historical relationship to the slave trade.

The group, the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, proposed a number of ways the University could hold itself accountable and make amends for what the committee dubbed “Brown’s part in grievous crimes.”

In the wake of almost universal praise for the committee’s undertaking, both on campus and around the country, the University announced a number of broad and ambitious commitments in response to the report’s recommendations, including a “major research and teaching initiative” on slavery and justice (which quickly took the form of a proposed academic center), a permanent slave trade memorial on or near campus and a planned $10 million endowment to fund educational initiatives in Providence public schools.

But more than two years later, few of those commitments have been fully implemented, and many are still years away from producing tangible results.

The piecemeal approach the University has taken toward implementing the report’s recommendations, officials’ failure to consolidate oversight of the broad effort and the vacillation of several committees tasked with decision-making have led to slower progress.

Conversations with faculty and administrators involved in various stages of the endeavor – many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity – paint a picture of an effort hindered by bureaucratic delays and a lack of drive on the part of the administration.

Efforts toward establishing a center to study slavery and justice appear to be moving forward, but key questions about such a center’s structure and focus remain unresolved, and no major source of funding has yet emerged for what promises to be an expensive project.

A 10-member commission tasked with developing ideas for a memorial has met several times, but University officials suggest that it has yet to make any concrete decisions, and its final report may simply be a blueprint for further study.

After almost two years, the endowment for public education has raised less than one-fifth of its goal, and no money has actually been distributed to schools so far.

The problem, many of those interviewed said, is not one of bad faith or lack of political will on the part of the administration. President Ruth Simmons and Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 made clear in interviews that they remain committed to enacting all of the major initiatives the University promised.

Professor of Africana Studies James Campbell, who chaired the original steering committee, said he was not overly concerned with the pace of progress. “Universities proceed slowly,” he said. “Have some of these processes taken longer than one might have expected or hoped? I suppose that’s true, but that’s in the nature of universities.”

But other faculty members who sat on the original steering committee said parts of the effort have moved significantly more slowly than they had envisioned, and some said they were growing frustrated with the lack of progress.

In the University’s response to the 17-member committee’s recommendations, which were released four months after their report was published, Simmons laid out a blueprint for action – rejecting some recommendations, reshaping others and expanding a few.

Twenty-one months after Simmons’ response, some of the University’s promised initiatives have moved far faster than others.

The Urban Education Fellows program welcomed its inaugural class in June. Ten students – seven in the Masters of Arts in Teaching program and three in Urban Education Policy – will graduate this May, said Professor of Education Kenneth Wong, the department chair.

After three years of service in local public schools and education non-profits, the University will waive graduates’ tuition loans.

The Brown-Tougaloo partnership has also been strengthened. The alliance between Brown and the historically black Mississippi college has been around since 1964, but the extent of both schools’ commitment has wavered over time, said Valerie Wilson, associate dean of the graduate school and director of the Brown-Tougaloo partnership.

“Much like the phoenix, it bursts into flames, dies and gets resurrected,” Wilson said. “So we’re in a resurrection phase.”

In response to recommendations last year by the newly formed Brown-Tougaloo Advisory Council, Simmons agreed to fund two projects out of her discretionary fund to help the partnership. Brown gave $25,000 to fund Tougaloo’s own Fall 2009 conference on slavery and justice, focusing on slavery in the South from a historically black college’s perspective, and committed $50,000 toward the construction of an interactive “smart classroom” at Tougaloo, which will have advanced video-conferencing features compatible with similar classrooms on Brown’s campus.

Though progress has been made on all of the University’s slavery-and-justice commitments, three of the most important appear to be moving far behind schedule. Key questions remain unresolved for each, and even the people involved in implementing them are unable to give a timeline as to when they may be in place.

Slow progress, big plansPlans for a center to study issues of slavery and justice remain unclear. Kertzer appointed a 10-member faculty committee in April 2007 that was tasked with writing a report on the “shape, cost and scope” of the “major research and teaching initiative” the University had promised in its response. Kertzer asked for the report to be submitted in fall 2007 and promised an external review of its recommendations.

The committee met monthly for two semesters, and quickly settled on a new academic center as its goal, said Professor of Economics Glenn Loury, the committee’s chair.

However, its final report – submitted a semester late, in March of this year – failed to discuss the cost of such a center at all, and a professor familiar with the effort said it did not address several important questions, such as whether the center should have a physical home or whether it should offer an undergraduate concentration.

“My understanding is they had great difficulty reaching consensus” on basic issues of the center’s focus, Simmons said, adding that, given those disagreements, “they did a good enough job.”

Since the committee submitted its report to the Academic Priorities Committee, Kertzer and several faculty members involved with the effort said, the initiative has passed partly into the hands of Department of History Chair Kenneth Sacks and Department of Africana Studies Chair Barrymore Bogues. The two are currently planning a major lecture series for next semester, which will bring several high-profile speakers to campus to lecture on topics related to slavery and justice.

Two faculty members confirmed that one speaker will be David Blight, director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.

Blight and at least two other speakers will give what Kertzer described as “free consultation” to the APC and the history and Africana studies departments on the form such a center might take. The as-yet unnamed speakers will likely be candidates to be the center’s director, the two professors said.

Plans for the center are “perhaps rolling out rather deliberately, not as rapidly as we might have hoped initially,” Kertzer said. “But this way we feel we’re going to end up with something that’s really going to be a nationally visible, major center.”

Simmons said the eventual director will be able to answer lingering questions about the center, adding that “we almost have to wait for those people to be in place.”

A faculty member involved with the lecture series planning expressed frustration that the timeframe for making such decisions was unclear. And though Simmons said a donor will fund next semester’s lecture series, none has stepped up to fund the center itself, a project that will doubtless cost millions.

In July of last year, Simmons, along with Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 and Mayor David Cicilline ’83, appointed a 10-member commission to study the possibility of a slave trade memorial. The group, composed of representatives from Brown, government and the community, was tasked with recommending possible sites and monuments for a memorial commemorating the legacy of slavery in Rhode Island.

Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations, said the group has met several times since its inception and is now “moving toward a report.”

But Brenda Allen, associate provost and director of institutional diversity – who works with the commission and also served on the original steering committee – said the report will likely be a blueprint for further study rather than a set of clear recommendations for the siting or composition of a memorial.

“No one on the commission was charged with actually coming up with the idea, but really we’ve been concerned about what a process for that idea should look like, and how to get more people involved in that,” Allen said.A professor on the original steering committee who spoke on condition of anonymity said he believed that the commission’s infrequent meetings and lack of an appointed chairperson hindered its effectiveness.

“The commission could have functioned differently,” Simmons said. “I misread how much the commission itself would think that it had to go and investigate things. I thought they’d take the slavery and justice report and they would say, ‘OK, now let’s think about what we would recommend to the city and the state and the campus.’ That was naive. They wanted to do their own work … and I respect that. So yes, it’s taken longer. Maybe we could’ve foreseen that.”

The Herald attempted to contact each member of the commission. Of the seven who were reached, all either did not respond or declined to be interviewed.

The Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, a major initiative to create a permanent endowment for Providence public schools, has made very little demonstrable progress since it was first announced.

The University said at the time that it might take several years to raise the full $10 million promised for the endowment. Now, according to Simmons, it has about $1.65 million from four donors, but no grants to schools have yet been made.

Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar ’87 MA’90, a member of the Corporation’s board of trustees who sits on the committee overseeing the fund, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that it wanted to learn more about schools’ needs before awarding grants.

To that end, she wrote, the committee has met regularly in Providence over the past year to discuss the challenges facing Providence schools and meet with members of teachers’ unions, the school board, and city and state administrators.

A lack of oversightOne reason that these efforts have not yielded more progress may be that administrators have disregarded one commitment they made in the University’s response to the report: oversight.

The original steering committee asked that a new group be appointed to monitor implementation of its recommendations. Simmons chose not to do so, saying that the Brown University Community Council could be used instead. In her response to the committee’s report, she mentioned creating “a suitable body to continue monitoring progress on recommendations,” and added that the University would “commit to the ongoing evaluation of these efforts by engaging an outside consultant.”

University officials said that neither of those things has happened.

The BUCC has never discussed any aspect of the implementation effort, according to the council’s posted minutes. Both Quinn and Kertzer expressed surprise upon hearing that it had even been referenced in the University response.

Quinn and Simmons both said that up until now it would have been premature to discuss the effort with the council but that next semester might be a good time to do so. Quinn also said that the University had never intended to hire a consultant before implementation of the commitments made in the University response was mostly finished.

The president said that since she keeps tabs on the progress of each initiative, a committee or other body to oversee the effort would simply result in more bureaucratic red tape.

However, three professors told The Herald they were disappointed with the lack of broad oversight. One member of the original committee suggested that Simmons should designate an administrator to oversee the various initiatives, or turn them over to the provost.

Simmons disagreed. “We were in fact pushing the committee working on the center,” she said. “We were nagging them constantly to get things done, and to do it more quickly. The fact that they couldn’t do it – it’s just very typical of the kind of process that we use.”

Of the initiatives that have been successful to date, two have benefited from leaders with unambiguous responsibility for the project and clear connections to existing University programs.

“I always think ahead,” said Wong, the education department chair, of the Urban Education Fellows. “So when the slavery and justice recommendations were approved by the Corporation, right away I started a conversation.”

“We started early, we engaged all the key parties on campus … and then moved it to the operational phase,” he said.

Valerie Wilson, of the Brown-Tougaloo Advisory Council, said there is “a long-standing partnership that’s already established” between the colleges. “There’s just been this wonderful coincidence in time when an advisory council had already been constituted with this specific interest,” she said.

“The things that somebody can simply decide to do and mandate just get done quickly,” Simmons said. “Anything that involves committees and structures and consensus-building and so forth takes longer.”

But as time passes and the steering committee’s original effort grows more distant, existing impetus toward advancing the wide-ranging slavery and justice endeavor may be lost.

“We agreed with the committee at the time that it would be a mistake if we shelved the report and simply went off and did things,” Simmons said. The implementation effort “was a way of engaging people in the subject.”

“I’m a person who likes to get things done,” she said. “And so fundamentally I won’t be satisfied until the full $10 million is in for the fund, I won’t be satisfied until we have the commission work finalized, I won’t be satisfied until the center issues are resolved. But I think there’s a lot of reason to be pleased about what has happened thus far.”

“It is probably opportune for us to revisit what we had down there as plans to do, and take stock,” Kertzer said. “It is easy to lose sight – there’s such a wealth of things going on every day, and then new things like this economic situation get on top of that – and so given just how ambitious this was, it’s probably inevitable that some things will move more quickly than others. But it is true that we have to be sure that nothing falls between the cracks.”

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at