The ‘university-college’ on the hill

By
Senior Editor
Thursday, April 22, 2010

In 1980 — long before the University embarked on an ambitious plan to expand its graduate programs, research capabilities and international prestige, when the University’s faculty was only two-thirds the size that it is now, when the endowment was one-twentieth the size that it is now and when the University received one-third of the applications it does now — the University viewbook, distributed to prospective applicants, presented a picture of a Brown whose undergraduate and graduate offerings were equally strong.

Brown “is one of the very few institutions which has achieved and maintained that delicate balance between the undergraduate aspects of a college and the research aspects of a university,” the viewbook proclaimed. “And that should be important to you in your deliberations.”

Thirty years later, the Brown that prospective students see has changed immensely. The Graduate School and the faculty have dramatically expanded. Billions of dollars fund new capital projects and the campus boasts updated facilities extending to the south and west. Applications have soared and the University’s once-slumping graduate programs are now some of the best in the nation. The University has acted on its ambitions to become one of the best in the world and an equal competitor with institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford. But the message that Brown is a university-college — equally focused on graduate and undergraduate education — has hardly budged.

‘A major cultural shift’
The 2004 Plan for Academic Enrichment, enacted under President Ruth Simmons and intended to increase Brown’s national and international prestige, has spurred a dramatic expansion of the University’s faculty, graduate programs and research capabilities. But with growth comes an increasing focus on graduate students and a concern that undergraduates may be neglected.

The way Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 tells it, the Plan signifies a tectonic shift in the University’s aspirations.

“Brown has ambition to be one of the world’s great universities. We’re increasing our international visibility and we’re increasing our ambition,” he said. “Those aspirations have an impact on the spirit and the ethos of the place. It’s all part of a major cultural shift. By thinking of ourselves as a major player on the world stage, it sets the bar higher and sets our sights higher.”

But these ambitions necessitate a larger and more powerful graduate school — which, some caution, may herald a decreased focus on teaching and advising as faculty devote more time to research and grants.

“It is a question of proportionality,” Simmons said of the ratio between graduate and undergraduate students. “A lot of universities have outpaced, outgrown, outshown their undergraduate programs. It’s important that that proportion not get out of whack. That proportion tells you what matters. Here, (undergraduates) know that they matter.”

Simmons also said the expansion of the Graduate School need not threaten the undergraduate experience. “It’s a false dichotomy to speak in terms of the undergraduate experience versus the graduate experience, just because the nature of education has evolved over this period of time,” she said.

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, whose job includes maintaining the quality of the undergraduate experience in the face of the Plan, said the University’s expansion benefits undergraduates greatly, allowing for more readily available research opportunities.

“At a place like Brown, undergraduates are not detached from the work of the faculty,” she said. “At Brown, they’re working side-by-side in their labs, they’re helping to design new courses, they’re teaching faculty about their own expertise in some cases. So I feel that the enhancement of the seriousness of the research program can only benefit undergraduates. Good research that goes on on the campus is a benefit to everyone,” she said.

Moreover, Bergeron said, the increase in the faculty has paved the way for more specialized programs and institutes, such as the development of the Cogut Center for the Humanities, as well as spurring an increase in the number of graduate courses — classes that have come to be populated by undergraduates.

“It really isn’t an either/or proposition,” she said. “But a both/and.”

Narratives over numbers
Ultimately, policy proscriptions like the Plan — dense and technical, outlined in bullet points and graphs, tucked away in memos — may simply not be of interest to prospective students and their parents, said Michael Goldberger, who began as associate director of admissions in 1983 but has been director of athletics since 2005.

“Most kids don’t know much about who the president of an institution is,” he said. During his tenure as director of admission, Goldberger found people not to be “as concerned about the expansion of the Graduate School outside of the University” as they were inside.
Christiana Stephenson ’11, tours co-coordinator for the Bruin Club and The Herald’s director of alumni relations, said that by and large, the questions she receives on tours revolve around quality-of-life measures like dining halls and dormitories, rather than intricate details of administrative policy.

As for the Plan, “talking about the Plan for Academic Enrichment may be more than prospective students and their families want to digest,” said Keith Light, associate director of admission and director of communications for the Office of Admission.
Indeed, the Plan scarcely shows up in the University’s admissions literature. Though viewbooks and the Web site emphasize much that it has yielded — state-of-the-art laboratories and art studios, bigger and better research opportunities for undergraduates — the Plan itself is not mentioned by name.

The guiding force for University policy is thus in large part invisible to the world off College Hill. And this is intentional.

“A lot of what is most useful in our outreach is more impressionistic,” Light said. “We want to communicate the nature and character and opportunities of Brown in such a way that it can be compelling and digestible.”

Especially as the college search moves online and students can find all kinds of information without having to page through a viewbook, the admission office is focusing less on numbers and more on narrative — telling stories that focus on individual students and faculty and highlight the opportunities available to undergraduates.

“We do try to showcase those kinds of stories that show faculty engaging in research with undergraduates,” said Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations.

“We’re not merely listing the number of research institutes or books in the library,” Light said. “For high school seniors, an overview is often important.”

The admission office works closely with the Office of Public Affairs and University Relations to “be conscious of what Brown hopes to have the universe know about the University,” Light said. “We pay attention to emphasizing what the University’s priorities are.”

The Office of Admission, he said, is “being more conscious of highlighting Brown’s strengths, particularly those that may not be widely understood.”

Goldberger said that during his time as director of admission, “the notion of a university-college” was one of Brown’s biggest selling points, along with the New Curriculum.
“We wanted to make sure that we were seen for what distinguishes us, and that’s the university-college and the Open Curriculum,” he said.

These days, according to Quinn, academic terms like “university-college” are becoming scarcer and scarcer in the University’s promotional materials.

Jason Becker ’09 GS, a former tour guide, also said that while the university-college model is “extremely attractive,” he found
as a tour guide that it was “more complex than what people needed.”

But even as the term has disappeared from admission literature, Quinn said, “that doesn’t mean we don’t value that part.”

Now what distinguishes the University is its focus on providing a high-quality and flexible undergraduate education alongside research opportunities — and that’s what admission officers are working to emphasize.

In recent years, the Bruin Club has developed and institutionalized its Science Tours program, which gives prospective scientists a closer and more comprehensive look at the University’s science facilities.

During these tours, “we spend a lot of time talking about research, taking students into labs,” said Jonathan Eldridge ’11, who coordinates them for the Bruin Club. “We also like to show off that it’s undergraduate research.”

“It’s about emphasizing that we do do science and engineering and technology, thank you very much,” Light said.

Research sells
With the increasingly competitive college admissions process and the advent of research opportunities for high school students, prospective applicants are getting into research earlier and earlier — and expecting their colleges to offer them more opportunities than in the past.

“The notion of undergraduate research has really taken hold since I started in undergraduate admission in the 1980s,” Light said. “I think there’s a higher hope and expectation that this is something that undergraduates can do.”

Becker, who engaged in research in high school and studied chemistry as an undergraduate, actively sought out research opportunities when looking for schools. “I wanted the flexibility to explore my interests, but I needed to go somewhere that I would be doing hands-on laboratory science work directly with faculty.”

For this reason, Brown’s expansion may prove to be a significant selling point for prospective students.

“We lose students to other research universities, not small liberal-arts colleges,” Kertzer said. “We don’t lose students to Williams, to Amherst, to Bowdoin, to Wesleyan. Students want the excitement of a top university.”

Simmons said Brown’s research capabilities attract students who “would not have come to Brown if it were, in fact, a college. These are students who want faculty who are involved in scholarship at a very high level.”

While the viewbook of 1980 touted Brown’s state-of-the-art facilities and powerhouse research programs, it was published before the Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences towered over Meeting Street, before the University expanded into the Jewelry District, before the faculty ballooned from 475 to nearly 700.

Becker said that since he came to Brown, he has seen the University’s language and focus change.

“I think we’re emphasizing the research university part much more heavily — and backing it up better than we used to.”

Sharpening the message
As the University continues to grow into its aspirations and deepen its commitment to research — and while the nature of college admissions changes — the University appears to be sharpening, though not overhauling entirely, the story it tells to prospective students and their families.

“The terms we use to talk about the University haven’t changed,” Quinn said. “We talked about our excellence in teaching and research even (before the Plan).”

The difference, it seems, is that now the University has more to back it up.

“Brown has always carved itself out as a research institution,” said Becker, who in addition to touring has worked closely with administrators on shaping University policy as a member of the Task Force on Undergraduate Education. “But it’s only becoming true now.”

“The attempt to bring out the research character of this institution has always been there. Our job now is to make it even more visible,” Bergeron said. “Will that change our identity? The fact is, the term ‘university-college’ has two words in it, and ‘university’ is first.”

“We sell ourselves as caring considerably about the centrality of the undergraduate experience,” Simmons said. “I think Brown’s identity as an undergraduate college that is unique and very successful at providing a total undergraduate experience … is empowering to students.”

She paused. “I think that will never go away. It is central to our identity and it is necessary to our success.”

Perhaps it is this growth, this ambition, that drives the narrative of the University. “One of the great things about telling the story in our own way about the academic plan is that it is aspirational,” Light said.

“No one will get excited about a university that merely rested on its laurels.”

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