Eppler ’13: Suggestions for Swearer

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Swearer Center for Public Service is a great asset to Brown, Providence and Rhode Island. It operates dozens of programs around the state, providing service opportunities to hundreds of Brown undergraduates every year and serving thousands of Rhode Island residents. Its fellowship and grant offerings allow many Brown students to engage in research or work that makes the world a better place, regardless of financial circumstance. We are lucky that Brown has made an institutional commitment to support and develop the Swearer Center over the center’s 25-year history.

But the Swearer Center is not all that it could be. The center itself reports that, in any given year, approximately 700 students participate in Swearer community service programs. At a school with a reputation for attracting students interested in public service, shouldn’t the campus home of public service attract more than 10 percent of the undergraduate student body every year? Despite its significant merits, the Swearer Center is simply irrelevant to 90 percent of the student body. Why has this happened?

A look at the Swearer Center’s program offerings provides significant insight into its limited appeal. Yes, the center offers dozens of superficially distinct programs. But the programs are remarkably similar in their substantive skill requirements. Legendary car manufacturer Henry Ford described the options available on the Model T, the first mass-produced automobile, by saying “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.” Similarly, the Swearer Center effectively tells Brown undergraduates that “any student can do any public service that he wants, so long as it is teaching.” Sure, you can teach in a classroom or as a private tutor. You can teach middle school students, high school students, immigrant adults or even prisoners. You can teach science, math, arts, English as a second language or even sex education. But the Swearer Center’s definition of “service” is effectively one thing: teaching.

The Swearer Center’s teaching-centric approach to public service is needlessly limiting. Its teaching programs fill important needs in Rhode Island’s schools, community centers and prisons, but there are many additional needs in the communities. Brown students, with their incredible intellectual capabilities, unique skills and boundless energy, should not be limited to addressing one need. The center’s limited focus wastes potential and motivation. The center aims to “connect the capacities of Brown University with those of the larger community.” A heavy focus on one “capacity” means that it will be incapable of accomplishing this goal.

The center’s teaching focus also sends an unfortunate message to Brown undergraduates. While the center states that “Brown’s educational philosophy continues to promote active community engagement as a central component of undergraduate education,” the emphasis on teaching programs means that, for many Brown students, community engagement will be incompatible with their undergraduate education. The center’s teaching-centric approach essentially tells a wide swath of Brown undergraduates who attend Brown to develop skills unrelated to pedagogy that their talents and skills are incompatible with public service. For those students, a commitment to public service is not co-curricular or extracurricular, it is anti-curricular.

In order to better utilize the capabilities of undergraduates and provide a meaningful co-curricular public service opportunity to students of all intellectual interests, the center should expand its definition of public service beyond teaching. Students have many skills that would be incredibly valuable to Rhode Island’s public service organizations. For example, computer science concentrators should be connected to organizations that need web sites or other software development assistance, and comparative literature and foreign language concentrators should be connected to organizations that need translation assistance. The Swearer Center could help Rhode Island’s nonprofits improve the quality of their programs and services by connecting organizations to public policy students, who receive training in quantitative and qualitative program evaluation methods. Many Brown undergraduates are interested in legal careers, but Brown provides few opportunities for these students to experience legal work prior to law school. Rhode Island’s public defender and legal aid organizations use undergraduate volunteers in a variety of capacities, but their recruitment capabilities are limited. The Swearer Center could bridge this gap, recruiting much-needed undergraduate volunteers and providing meaningful public service career experiences for students.

The center would be ideally situated to facilitate these programs: Its staff members have substantial knowledge of the needs of Rhode Island’s public service organizations, and the center does an excellent job of incubating student-run service groups. The Swearer Center should form relationships with extant student-run service groups that are not currently affiliated with Swearer and should also form new ones.

Admittedly, financial limitations may preclude expansion at the Swearer Center. If financial limitations are the impediment, administrators should address them. Every Brown student should have the opportunity to participate in meaningful public service during their time at Brown, and the Swearer Center could provide these opportunities in the future.



Ian Eppler ’13 is just another bleeding-heart Brown liberal who wants to change the world. He may be contacted at

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  1. Very well said.

  2. I certainly agree that Swearer Center programs could and should be diversified. Programs are founded and managed by students and it is up to students to create programs that they want to see. I’m sure the Swearer Center would be happy to work with you, or other students, to develop the kinds of programs that you suggested in your article. Writing an article asking someone else to do something is a whole lot easier and less useful than working to change it yourself.

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