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Columns

Liebling ’12: Stacking the deck

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, November 3, 2011

Six professors sit on the Presidential Search Campus Advisory Committee. Only one of them is a faculty member in the humanities. They are joined by three undergraduates — all studying economics or commerce, organizations and entrepreneurship. The two graduate students study cognitive science and medicine. The two staff representatives work in finance and technology.

Sixteen Corporation members comprise the Presidential Selection Committee. Six of them hail from the Wall Street world. Three are lawyers. One is a professor — of psychology. Precisely none work in the humanities.

So despite the fact that 22 percent of the class of 2010 received humanities degrees, students studying humanities are represented by only one of the committees’ combined 29 members — a lonely professor of religious studies.  Susan Harvey P’14, we’re all counting on you.

This utter lack of academic diversity means that for all intents and purposes, the search for President Ruth Simmons’ successor is over before it has even begun. There could hardly be a better reflection of the last 10 years of changing institutional priorities than the one-dimensionality of the committees’ membership, and one would be hard-pressed to assemble a group less likely to question the underlying educational assumptions of the Simmons era.

These committees exclusively represent the side of Brown that has benefited immensely from the University’s singular emphasis on the hard sciences, research and pre-professional education. There is not a member who can attest to the corresponding neglect that the administration never likes to talk about — the deteriorating undergraduate experience in the humanities, the layoffs, the bullying of staff with ever-worsening contract terms.

The presidential search could have been an opportunity to profoundly reassess the uncompromising direction in which Brown has now been heading for over a decade. At the very least, it could have been a chance to take a few years to balance the scales, to pay institutional attention to the departments that need it most and to help them catch up with the achievements made elsewhere on Simmons’ watch.

Instead, these committees were selected to paint a Panglossian Pollyanna portrait of the state of Brown, to choose a president who will herald a change in name only upon taking over from Simmons this summer.

The most elegant part of the arrangement is that it allows the administration and Corporation to enjoy the trappings of democracy without any of the messiness. They maintain the pretense of community participation in major decision-making without ever jeopardizing the predominance of their own vision. Anyone who might offer a compelling substantive alternative, it seems, was simply not offered a seat at the table.

The makeup of the two committees puts the lie to the administration’s hollow contention that there remains an equal place for all of us at Brown, that we are all equal constituents in the University community with an equal say in its governance. How can English concentrators look at these committees and feel like their University cares about them? How can a high school senior interested in history see one humanities representative out of 29 members and think that Brown is a good fit?

When it poses no risk to their plans, the administration is happy to pretend that it doesn’t play favorites with departments. But when it comes to something as serious as choosing a university president, the truth comes out, and its message to the humanities is laid bare: “You don’t make us money. You don’t bring us prestige. You don’t matter.” What else are we to conclude when one solitary professor is tasked with representing the voices of thousands of undergraduates and 200 faculty members?

Brown owes its humanities students and professors an apology, but beyond that it owes them an honest opportunity to express their needs and concerns. It owes them an administration that treats the humanities as an academic priority rather than a distracting afterthought. The presidential selection process was a chance to settle both debts. Instead, they’re still outstanding — and much, much bigger.

Simon Liebling ’12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at simon.liebling@gmail.com.

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