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Moraff ’14: The bogus strategic planning process

Opinions Columnist

President Christina Paxson’s strategic planning process is fatally flawed. It was flawed from the beginning, and any recommendations born out of this process should be taken with a massive grain of salt.

First off, the big idea behind strategic planning was that all groups at Brown would be represented. Again and again, administrators at Brown have made major decisions behind closed doors. Supposedly, with strategic planning, that would all change. On that score, the process is a failure. Administrators claim the committees are representative. They’re not. Two groups, students and staff, are not represented on these committees.

Compared to the staff, students are the lucky ones. Non-managerial staff members have been completely shunned. They have no representation on multiple committees. It’s as if they don’t even exist. They have long been represented on other campus committees, but to the strategic planning process they may as well be vapor. Apparently, to the president, they are not a real part of this university in the way everyone else is. There is virtually no value in a process that treats entire groups as non-persons and decides that their perspective isn’t worth hearing.

But students don’t have it much better. Generally, whenever the Undergraduate Council of Students appoints people to the mostly unimportant committees over which it has jurisdiction, it advertises out the position. Interested students can apply, and UCS makes the final call. It’s not ideal, but it’s as close to a democratic process as we get around here.

So it’s kind of strange that when it came time for UCS to make appointments that actually mattered, they did not advertise. There was no open process, no email blast from UCS President Anthony White ’13. They literally picked their friends. Council members picked people they knew, White confirmed in an email to The Herald. People in the social circles of student government kids do not “represent” student opinion. This isn’t Paxson’s fault. She couldn’t have predicted misconduct on the part of UCS. It is, however, a grave flaw in the process, shutting out a huge chunk of the student body from day one.

So there’s the first problem. The committees are not representative and should not be treated as such. This issue has been raised with administrators, to no avail.

The second problem is that the president seems to have already made up her mind about major policy decisions, regardless of the outcome of strategic planning.

Just two weeks ago, the University announced a $160 million building campaign for the School of Engineering, with extensive new construction. Over the last month, the administration has been claiming — incorrectly — that we cannot afford to provide universal need-blind admissions. The destruction of the Gate and the construction of a new dining hall, in a culmination of years of wrongheaded policy, had been previously planned. These decisions have all been made outside of this process, making it hard for any student to believe their input actually matters.

All of these policies fall under the jurisdiction of strategic planning committees, none of which have issued their final report.

This could have been an opportunity for a serious process to determine the University’s future. As seen by the outpouring of support for better financial aid, for universal need-blind and for reducing family contributions, students want the University to be more strongly committed to financial aid. Many of us want the University to support its workers. The University seems to care more about its things than its people, and this could have been an opportunity for a much-needed course correction.

Instead, it’s a show. It’s a show the administration is putting on to give the impression that Paxson’s policies have been informed by an open, democratic process. But of course they haven’t. She is already committing to the same old mistakes — growing and growing, pouring millions of dollars into our stuff while neglecting our people. The administration is too impatient to even pretend to consider the committees’ final recommendations.

This isn’t to denigrate the people serving on these committees. They have done some good work and collected some useful data, and bear no responsibility for the fatal flaws in the process. The final committee reports may well include useful information, although certain committees, in particular the Committee for Reimagining the Campus and Community, are making ominous signs of more building-centric policy. Due to the broken planning process, their actual recommendations should carry very little weight.

The UCS president predicted last month that “when strategic planning becomes a part of her legacy, that’s when the cult of Paxson will begin.” I can’t think of a less inspiring cult origin story than the strategic planning process. If Paxson is actually committed to listening to the community, she should bring students and staff into the process and reject the outcomes of strategic planning.



Daniel Moraff ’14 can be reached at

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  1. When somebody suggested adding a regular staff member (not upper administration) on the committee, they were told it couldn’t be done because the strategic planning committees “are charged with “thinking big” on behalf of the University.” That’s what they think of staff.

    • Daniel Moraff says:

      Pretty thoroughly sickening.

    • A staff member is the head of a committee. I’m going to let you figure out which one, because maybe that will lead you to actually read the committee rosters.

  2. seriously? says:

    great writing: “a massive grain of salt”. seriously? you’re really out of sorts. the strategic planning process wasn’t designed to stop everything for over a year, and priorities had already been identified and projects had already been started, apart from Paxson’s planning process. if you want to say that using space more efficiently on pembroke campus (and the major maintenance work that alumnae hall requires) is “wrong-headed”, you can at least explain why. otherwise maybe pick points you can actually substantiate. what you don’t understand is that priorities defined by student surveys are only one part of the equation. all of the planning committees are offering AMPLE opportunities for feedback and protest; indeed, some have totally changed their proposals based on community feedback (including the campus planning committee). maybe you should go back to your inbox and count just how many times, and with what periodicity, you received emails asking for your input into the strategic planning process. i’ve been to town hall style feedback meetings, which were specifically advertised to every single person with a brown email account (and more, including staff), and students were all but absent. if you feel strongly about these things, why aren’t you actually doing anything? maybe make a group of students and go to the meetings, lobby the committees or something. students for financial aid did something, and financial aid is going to be a big priority. and no, the administration isn’t lying about not being able to afford it. where are you getting your information?

  3. Way to wait until the strategic planning process is almost over to criticize it. Nice!

    • Daniel Moraff says:

      Thanks, hi. We’ve actually been voicing these criticisms for months but hey, you do you.

  4. langes von meer says:

    Astute observations. It is a show, done by amateurs.

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