University News

Dialogue falters, expansion grinds ahead

Part 2 of a 4-part series

By and
Senior Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
This article is part of the series Mission drift?

One professor said he was scared — “scared of the University’s being asked to bear another financial risk.”

A few months earlier, Mark Spilka, then chair of the Department of English, had said he was worried the University seemed to be drifting away from the humanities, establishing itself as a “science-oriented campus.”

It was the 1971-72 school year, and the subject of debate was a proposed medical school, an institution that would be fully separate from the College.

Nearly 30 years earlier, then-President Henry Wriston had defined Brown’s identity as a university-college, an institution “which puts primary emphasis upon the liberal arts,” differentiating it from the nation’s growing universities. Concerns were widespread that establishing a medical school was contrary to Brown’s identity and mission, and Alpert Medical School was only approved after extensive campus-wide discussion.

The same questions are relevant today, but the accompanying discourse is far more subdued.

Unlike the 1972 establishment of the Med School, the 2010 approval of the School of Engineering went largely uncontested, and the forthcoming school of public health appears to face an equally smooth path to formation.

“If you’re going to have an engineering school and the school of public health, you’re departing from the university-college idea,” Erwin Hargrove, a professor of political science in the 1970s, said in September. “That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to big universities, but they’re different.”

To expand its science and research profile under the leadership of President Ruth Simmons this decade, the University has grown its science faculty, allocated more resources to research, expanded brain sciences and transitioned the division of engineering into a full-fledged school.

Though such efforts have increased the University’s prestige, some faculty members and students are questioning whether the University is drifting from its mission by moving away from its identity as a university-college.

Student and faculty reactions to the School of Engineering and the proposed school of public health have been tamer compared to the debate preceding the opening of the Med School in the 1970s.

There is no consensus on whether the schools of engineering and public health indicate a drift from the University’s mission, and it remains unanswered if and how the shift in focus away from the central College affects Brown’s undergraduate experience.

The debate over the Medical School

The University first established a medical program in 1811, but it closed after 16 years and graduated only 87 students due to disputes with clinical faculty and the program’s general decline.

“Brown has experimented with a medical school, with agriculture, with forestry and with business administration. Each was dropped because it proved fundamentally incompatible with the University’s major obligation,” Wriston wrote in a 1946 letter to the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.

In the 1950s, Brown opened an Institute for Research in the Health Sciences. The Corporation approved a medical program in 1962 and inaugurated a six-year master’s program in medical science the following year.

Within 10 years, talks began concerning the granting of full medical degrees. Increasingly, federal funding for medicine was directed to institutions with medical schools, and Rhode Island hospitals were pressuring the University to expand its program.

Faculty and students contested the idea. Including letters to the editor, editorials and opinion columns, The Herald published more than 40 pieces pertaining to the medical school debate.

According to a Feb. 18, 1972 Herald article, a forum to debate the proposed medical school drew “about 125 people, mainly students.”

But Barrett Hazeltine, professor emeritus of engineering, did not recall a considerable student reaction — just a few meetings on the Main Green that attracted “very excited people.” Faculty members were more concerned, he said.

As the Corporation analyzed the financial effect a medical school would have on University affairs, faculty members were left on the sidelines to discuss curricular matters, Hargrove said. The vice president for administration had told the faculty not to concern themselves with financial matters, Hargrove said, but “the great anxiety was about money.”

The Corporation’s deliberations were “sealed off” from the community, and the consensus among faculty members was that the school’s approval was “fatalistic,” he said. “The deck was stacked.”

But other faculty members were open to the idea of a four-year medical school.

Henry Randall, professor of medical science and surgeon-in-chief at Rhode Island Hospital, wrote an article in the The Herald’s Medical School Supplement on March 7, 1972 in support of the school’s development on the condition that the University integrate the school’s administration and curriculum with the undergraduate College.

The students in the Master of Medical Science program supported establishing a four-year medical school, said Pardon Kenney ’72 MMS’75 MD’75 P’03, a member of the Medical School’s first graduating class.

But to undergraduates, “it was a big deal,” said Steven Rattner ’74 P’10 P’13 P’15, a former fellow of the Corporation and a former Herald editor-in-chief who reported on the medical school developments. “There were a lot of us who felt it would change the character of campus, change the nature of the school.”

“We viewed Brown as a place that was not going to do professional education — that was going to focus on undergraduates,” he said. The University’s limited financial resources also raised concerns that the medical school would be developed and maintained at the expense of undergraduate education.

A lack of interest

Though Brown has the oldest undergraduate engineering program in the Ivy League, it became the last among its peers to establish a school of engineering in May 2010.

The administrative shift — turning a program into a full-fledged school — was similar to the one involving the Med School in 1972.

But unlike the Medical School debate, the approval process for the engineering school generated comparatively little opposition from either the faculty or student body.

Rod Clifton, then-interim dean of the division of engineering, told The Herald in February 2010 that the change in nomenclature and size would increase the program’s national visibility and attract more students, faculty and research grants.

Clifton, who joined the University in 1964, said “historical” reasons kept the University from expanding its engineering program earlier. With the New Curriculum’s focus on a liberal education, the University may have deemed engineering uncharacteristically pre-professional, he said.

But as peer institutions established engineering schools, the University becam
e more open to the idea, he said in the 2010 article.

Engineering can be compatible with a liberal arts education, Clifton said, if students take advantage of the one-third of their courses that are not concentration requirements.

Funding for the engineering school was also less of an issue than it was for the Med School. Engineering alums, parents and companies were interested in contributing to the school, Clifton said

But some faculty members thought a school of engineering could compromise Brown’s uniqueness. An increased focus on engineering might steer the University from its university-college identity, William Simmons ’60, professor of anthropology and former vice president and provost, told The Herald in April 2010.

Still, “nobody was very worked up about it,” Hazeltine said, because it was “basically just changing the name.”

The Med School generated “a lot of hoopla” in a way the School of Engineering did not, said Jason Becker ’09 MA’10, who served on the Task Force on Undergraduate Education in 2007 and 2008.

Rattner offered few answers for the comparatively low level of student debate over the School of Engineering. Brown is “much calmer” than when he was a student, he said.

“President Simmons has made a very compelling case for why Brown needs to have a school of engineering,” he said.

Students should care about major academic changes at the University, Kenney said. But the short-term goal of getting through school often pushes those changes out of mind.

“Should they take an interest?” he said. “Absolutely. Do they? I don’t know.”

Student apathy

The shift under President Simmons’ tenure toward research and science has run parallel to a striking lack of discussion among students on campus. Whether due to inherent support, high levels of trust in the administration or simple apathy, the period stands in contrast to the years preceding the formation of the Med School in 1972.

The fears underlying the Med School debate proved unfounded, said Professor of Medical Science Terrie Wetle.

Many feared a medical school would not be financially solvent unless the University cut investments in existing undergraduate and graduate programs. But the Med School has succeeded, allaying fears that specialized schools negatively impact the undergraduate experience, Wetle said.

Also, the University in the 1970s was simply a different place from campus today. “It was a period of enormous activism,” Rattner said. The all-female Pembroke College officially merged with Brown in 1971, and the New Curriculum had been instated two years before. Brown was “on fire” when President Richard Nixon ordered a military invasion of Cambodia, Hargrove recalled.

The atmosphere affected student attitudes, said Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02, who called the 1960s a “turbulent” time at Brown. Though the medical school debate came after Miller graduated, he said the activist environment encouraged students to question University authority.

Students are more serious about their education today, said Hazeltine, who joined the Brown faculty in 1959. With increasingly selective admission, the nature of the student body has changed. Students are now more focused on finding jobs, Hazeltine said, leading to a decrease in student activism on campus.

“There were at least a few students when I was here who didn’t think that learning for learning’s sake was so corny it was unrealistic,” Miller said. “Students today are more vocationally oriented.”

The level of student trust in the administration — particularly Simmons — may also account for a decline in student debate over curricular changes, Rattner said.

Looking ahead

Next steps for the University involve transitioning the public health program — now four separate departments — into an accredited school.

Wetle, a key force behind the push, said the idea for a public health school dates back to at least 2000, when she joined the University.

Creating a school of public health would change the program’s status, allowing it recognition “at a different level” and making it eligible for more external funding, she said. The public health program now brings in more than $40 million in research funds each year.

Those behind a school for public health hope to submit a proposal some time before the end of the semester to reach the Corporation by next fall, Wetle said.

The initiative is “absolutely” in step with Brown’s mission, she said.

But a public health school could pull Brown further away from the university-college model, Hargrove said. “I’d rather have a smaller, more unified university,” he said.

Even with an increased focus on research, Simmons told The Herald she believed Brown would maintain its sense of individuality. “Brown is not Johns Hopkins. … It is not Berkeley. … It’s not MIT,” she said. “Why is it not? Because its identity is not just a research university.”

Instead of changing its substance, the University has expanded the scope of its mission to include graduate and pre-professional work, Miller said.

“The way Brown has changed is not to change any of that mission but to make that mission broader and broader,” Miller said. “In other words, to extend what the University does to more groups, to more professional categories and frankly to get better and better at it.”

But limited resources restrict the University from indefinitely expanding its mission to encompass all educations for all students. And while the New Curriculum and university-college model defined how the University has chosen to fulfill its mission in the past half-century, the recent shift toward establishing schools of engineering and public health indicates a drift away from that traditional model in favor of the larger research university model favored by the peers with whom Brown competes for students, funding and prestige.


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