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University News

Is the University suffering an identity crisis?

Part 1 of a 4-part series

Senior Editor
Monday, November 28, 2011

Though Henry Wriston championed Brown’s identity as a “university-college,” Ruth Simmons has departed from that model and pursued rapid expansion.

This article is part of the series Mission drift?

The University mission statement grew out of its charter, a document bold enough to create a governance structure for a school with no home, professors or students. The motley crew of New England Baptists and intellectuals that gathered in Newport in 1764 — the original Corporation — had their charter signed by the Royal Governor of Rhode Island, who was appointed by King George III. They could never have foreseen the Watson Institute for International Studies, the Alpert Medical School, the Ivy League, celebrity students or the sprawling, global institution the University has become.

The majority of the University’s nearly 250-year history would be unrecognizable to students today. At the beginning there was not only no University Hall, there was no College Hill — Brown, called Rhode Island College before 1804, was located in the nearby town of Warren until 1770. The campus consisted of just one building until 1822. Professors lived on campus and students could only speak to each other in Latin. In 1869, more than a century after its founding, the University enrolled just 195 students.

The language of Brown’s mission statement has been open enough to encompass the University’s activities through centuries, wars and upheavals. As the institution has evolved, so has the means by which it fulfills its mission. For more than a half-century, former President Henry Wriston’s vision of a university-college and the New Curriculum have defined Brown’s approach to satisfying these open-ended goals.

More recently, under President Ruth Simmons, Brown has seen explosive growth and rapid change. The institutional developments of the past 10 years, laid out and implemented under Simmons’ Plan for Academic Enrichment, have begun reshaping Brown’s identity as it navigates the 21st century.

But while both Wriston’s outline of a university-college and the report by Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10 and Elliot Maxwell ’68 that led to the New Curriculum are built on extensive philosophical underpinnings, the major decisions of the last decade have been made without the same explanation of institutional philosophy.

As the University continues to expand and invest, it is increasingly unclear not only whether the administration’s interpretation of Brown’s mission is changing but also whether the University community notices or cares.

Without more discussion of the philosophy behind major changes, Brown risks running adrift of its mission without a clear sense of why where it is going is better than where it has been.

As Brown searches for its next leader, this four-part series will place the changes of the last decade in broader context, explore the motivations behind them and examine whether they indicate a drift of mission that requires the attention of all members of the Brown community.


Growing beyond the ‘university-college’

The well-worn phrase “university-college” was first used to describe Brown in the early 20th century. But it was Wriston who truly enshrined the term in his 1948 presidential report to the Corporation.

“A university-college is an institution which puts primary emphasis upon the liberal arts, bringing to their cultivation the library, laboratories and personnel resources of a university,” he wrote. “Its central business remains the increase of knowledge, the inculcation of wisdom, the refinement of emotional responses and the development of spiritual awareness.”

The University still alludes to the concept, boasting that Brown uniquely combines the intimacy of an undergraduate residential college with the academic opportunities and prestige of a major research university. But Wriston’s definition of a university-college does not match Brown’s profile today.

Wriston criticized schools that taught technical or professional skills for failing to prepare students for the questions and demands they would face in the world. He used the term “vital necessity” more than once in his report to describe the liberal arts, which he considered essential for students, society and the University.

The value placed on the liberal arts was reinforced this year with the newly launched Humanities Initiative. But the school’s focus on professional training has grown and will continue to do so — with planned master’s programs in areas such as business analytics and health care management.

“Against the tendency to allow the liberal arts to occupy a secondary position Brown has been almost uniquely emphatic,” Wriston wrote. “Brown, for example, is one of very few members of the Association of American Universities which incorporates even engineering education within the liberal arts college instead of segregating it in a separate school.”

Today, he could not make such as a boast. In 2010, the University approved the separation of engineering into its own school.

Wriston also criticized “educational empires so vast as to be beyond the control of their faculties and beyond the comprehension of their boards of management or their administrative officers.” But the University has continued to expand — into the Jewelry District of Providence, the graduate schools of Europe and Asia and the web of online education. As it outgrows its traditional borders, geographical and otherwise, it comes more to resemble the model Wriston consciously rejected.


The Brown degree

In 1969, the New Curriculum redefined Brown. Its shadow still looms large over campus, and it largely defines Brown’s national reputation. Yet more than 40 years after its educational principles passed a faculty vote, the New Curriculum hardly works as its founders envisioned.

Modes of Thought courses were a central component of the New Curriculum, designed to be co-taught by professors from multiple departments and offered in such plenitude as to comprise the majority of first-year courses. But they quickly died out and have been replaced by the less multi-departmental and interdisciplinary First-Year Seminars.

And the principles of the New Curriculum have come under attack from students who request pluses and minuses as transcript-boosters, administrators who strengthen course prerequisites and faculty members who disregard undergraduate advising.

Brown is defined by its innovative curriculum, which brought it into the national spotlight and attracted the bright applicants who made it a top-ranked institution. But the Brown degree’s connotations and prestige are changing as Simmons’ PAE goals continue to unfold.

The University announced plans to launch professional master’s degree programs in 2013, which would involve little on-campus learning and could be taught exclusively by adjunct faculty members without permanent appointments. With these programs in place, a Brown diploma would no longer signify that the graduate studied under Brown faculty or was held to world-class academic standards.

Such curricular changes have been tried and abandoned before.

Former President Francis Wayland launched his New System in 1850 to expand Brown’s offerings to students who were more interested in professional advancement than four-year liberal arts degrees. By 1856, the loosened requirements and three-year bachelor’s of philosophy program had lowered the University’s academic standing. Then-President Barnas Sears 182
5 wrote to the Corporation, “No college has ever resorted to extra measures in order to facilitate the acquisition of academic honors without incurring the ridicule and contempt of other colleges. … We are flooded by a class of young men of little solidity or earnestness of character, who resort to this college not so much for the sake of sound learning as for the sake of cheap honors. We are now literally receiving the refuse of other colleges.”

By 1876, the Corporation had increased requirements and added a year to the bachelor’s of philosophy curriculum.

The University has a long history of continuing education, beginning with its offering of courses for the public in 1890. The professional master’s programs now offer more opportunities for the University to extend the Brown education beyond the ivory tower of those privileged enough to gain admission and afford tuition.

But when the Office of Continuing Education plans to open degree-granting courses taught by non-University faculty, a Brown degree is no longer associated with liberal arts and non-pre-professional coursework. As Brown’s educational values conflict with its search for new revenue streams, its operations take it farther afield from the principles of the university-college and the New Curriculum.


More money, more programs

The PAE is essential for the University’s survival as a top institution, Simmons told The Herald.

“I think when I first started, and I went to the Corporation and said that I didn’t think that the current model that we’re on is sustainable, a lot of people just couldn’t fathom that because it feels perfectly fine right now,” said Simmons, who was president of Smith College and an administrator at Princeton before heading to College Hill. “It’s only if you are out and about in the rest of the world, seeing what our peers are doing, that you come to understand how much Brown would be falling behind,” she said.

But the PAE requires money for everything from hiring professors to adding academic programs to continuing construction, and the University is constantly seeking new sources of revenue to continue to fund growth. But at times it seems money, rather than academics, has become the end in itself.

The orientation toward money can be read in the names of campus’ newest buildings. Older edifices are named after former presidents or even beloved faculty, such as Professor of History and Political Economy Jeremiah Lewis Diman 1851. But the newest, biggest buildings all bear the names of donors: the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center and the soon-to-open Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center, Katherine Moran Coleman Aquatics Center and David Zucconi ’55 Varsity Strength and Conditioning Center.

Master’s programs, which increase tuition income but not financial aid costs, have proliferated over the past 10 years. The University awarded master’s degrees in 38 programs in 1991, 39 programs in 2001 and 53 programs in 2011, according to the Office of the Registrar.

The expansion of the engineering division into a separate school has allowed for increased investment in the program, both in the form of new faculty hires and external grants. An enlarged engineering program will bring corporate partnerships and research funds to the University, but such revenue could come at the loss of Brown’s reputation as a true liberal arts university. And if the proposed engineering building is located off main campus in the Jewelry District, undergraduate students will find themselves commuting to meet their daily academic needs.

The launch of the School of Engineering enjoyed widespread support among administrators. It boosted the University to a position in line with its peers and is expected to bring more funding and prestige to Brown engineering. But because the school was approved with little on-campus discussion or debate, its impact on the undergraduate experience has yet to be articulated.


Administrative strengthening

Such limited campus dialogue surrounding the major developments of Simmons’ tenure makes a thorough assessment of them difficult.

Major University decisions have historically included extensive community involvement, committee evaluations and multiple reports. The New Curriculum, for example, started as a Group Independent Study Project before traveling through committee assessment, widespread discussion and a faculty vote.

The 1967 Advisory Committee on Student Conduct loosened curfews and liquor rules, the 1969 Special Committee on Educational Principles recommended the New Curriculum and the 1969 Pembroke Study Committee inspired the merge of Pembroke College and Brown. But the era of influential committees is over.

All three of those historic committees included administrators and students but were chaired by faculty.

The University’s more recent high-profile committees — the Committee on ROTC, the Athletics Review Committee and the Committee on Tenure and Faculty Development Policies — have all been chaired by administrators. The ROTC committee, despite much fanfare, precipitated no major shifts, and the athletics committee saw its most important recommendation, the cutting of varsity teams, rejected.

Student activism has changed as well. In a Herald faculty poll conducted this semester, 57.4 percent of respondents — and 82.6 percent of those who have worked at Brown more than 20 years — indicated that student activism has decreased since they were undergraduates.

While campus activism has not died, it is far less widespread. While 500 rallied in 1969 in support of the New Curriculum, only 15 undergraduates attended a recent forum on the ongoing presidential search.

The four-year model, in which the student body sees a 25 percent turnover each year, lends itself to weak institutional memory among undergraduates. The debate over adding pluses and minuses to the grading system, which seized campus in 2006, is forgotten today. And ongoing discussions over the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps could be lost to memory by the time the class of 2019 enters the Van Wickle Gates.

Simmons told The Herald she is not concerned if students do not engage with broad institutional shifts. The impact of the PAE, she said, will be appreciated by alums who benefit from the University’s increased prestige after graduating.

“The same students who don’t notice it today because they’re here, and they’re absorbed in their studies and their activities will care about it a good deal when they leave Brown,” Simmons said. “There are certain things that happen within our University that are of greater interest to faculty and administration and to some extent to alumni than to students.”


A call for self-study

With limited resources and ambitious goals, the University constantly faces tough decisions about how to best allocate money.

“We have to be careful stewards of those resources,” said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 in August. “For me, it’s very important not to make the wrong trade-off between doing lots of things sort-of and doing a smaller number of things really well.”

The mission itself, while lofty, does not directly determine these choices: The task of aligning Brown’s means and mission is left to each generation of leadership, guided by two-way dialogue from the top down and the bottom up.

The mission, like the Constitution, must be “interpreted in each generation anew, but it’s written in a way that’s broad and ambitious and aspirational, that can meet each generation’s interpretation,” said Schlissel, who has a copy of the mission statement hanging over his desk in University Hall.

As the University prepares to bid farewell to a visionary president and to select a new leader, the mission again comes to the forefront as the most prominent and permanent statement of Brown’s identity and purpose.

The r
emainder of this series takes stock of the past decade and provides a snapshot of the institution as it now stands. It will compare institutional decision-making in the 1970s to that of the present day, analyze the role of Brown’s peers in shaping its identity and examine the extent to which the need for money shapes, and may distort, University priorities.

The presidential search process makes this series especially timely, but the questions raised in these articles have been, and will continue to be, debated within and beyond The Herald’s pages.

“We feel that institutional self-study must be a very important part of the activity at the institution,” wrote the authors of the Magaziner-Maxwell report, which first proposed the New Curriculum. “The questions of what, how and why raised in the process of self-examination, as well as by the use of institutional self-study, will accent the need for human relevance in education.”


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  1. This is a fantastic piece! It does a wonderful job of placing the enormous changes of the Simmons years in a broader context.

    The Simmons strategy seemed to be to become a research university. Brown won’t compete adequately with Harvard or Yale, even if it tried it’s hardest and abandoned everything it has stood for since the adoption of the New Curriculum in 1969. The New Curriculum positioned Brown as a place that focused on liberal arts, had university-level resources and size, all while attracting somewhat unconventional students who wanted to combine learning, contemplation, connection, and a sense of public purpose. That kind of university is even more relevant in the US News rankings era than it was in 1969. It is a poor choice to move away from it and we ought to tack back. The next president should be someone who excelled as an undergraduate in the New Curriculum including in the classroom, in the community, and through building diverse relationships. We can’t withstand another leader who would prefer us to be Harvard-lite than occupy our own place with our own identity.

    Zach Teutsch ’05

  2. Ruth Simmons did more for Brown than any other President. I entered a school that had a reputation for engineering and academic rigor. Each department was tops in its field. When it became fashionable to have Afro American Studies, I discovered that Brown ALREADY had such a course, disguised under the title History of Math. Brown is the best repository of knowledge that I have encountered.

    Might I suspect that the critical slant of this article is jealousy that an Afro American and female, daughter of a sharecropper, brought in more donations than anyone else? Let us give credit where it is due, and celebrate her ability keep Brown competitive.

  3. By the way, top39 is Io-Aurelia Duncan. My Honors Thesis, published in 1970, was in experimental psychology, an engineering oriented discipline.

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