Roundtable: What should the Undergraduate Council of Students prioritize this year?

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UCS President, Opinions Editor, Brown Conversation member, Opinions Columnist
Friday, September 13, 2013

Harris: Engage the input of the student body

The Undergraduate Council of Students has a responsibility to ensure that undergraduates’ voices are heard by administrators and Corporation members. This year, fulfilling this duty is more important than ever.

President Christina Paxson will present a draft of her strategic plan — an outline of the future plans for the University — to campus later this month.  In October, it will be presented to the Corporation, Brown’s governing body, for approval. Students will have one month to share their opinions about Brown’s priorities for the next decade.

It is important not only that students speak with administrators but also that student opinions be communicated directly to the Corporation. To ensure that these ideas be communicated cohesively and coherently, and to present student input on a united front, UCS will compile all student feedback into a single report, which we will subsequently present to the Corporation.

Students will have a number of opportunities to speak their minds. There will be numerous campus forums for students to attend. UCS will host Paxson at our general body meeting the night of Oct. 2, during which all students are invited to speak with her directly. And from Oct. 7 to 11, UCS will conduct a campus-wide poll with questions regarding the content of the strategic plan. All this feedback will be synthesized into our report.

Last year, students participated in campus-wide student government elections at a higher rate than in many years past, and we must continue that trend of student engagement in order to make a substantive impact. The people who know Brown students best — Brown students — should determine the future of the Brown undergraduate education. The more participants, the more representative and impactful our feedback to the Corporation will be.

While we are working to incorporate student opinion into the strategic planning process, we have already begun to pursue specific improvements to student life and academics at Brown, based on student feedback.

We’ve heard many students’ concerns, and we plan to improve advising by partnering with faculty advisors, administrators and the Meiklejohn Program. We’re looking to create more opportunities for students to interact with alums and use Brown’s strong alumni network, not only as graduates, but also as current students. We want to improve the accessibility of the Office of Financial Aid and find new ways to reach out to low-income prospective students. And this is merely a small sample of the projects that we have already begun.

We will communicate our progress and encourage students to get involved through campus-wide updates and social media, as well as many in-person outreach campaigns. We’re dedicated to accomplishing the goals we have set and ensuring that all undergraduates know we are always looking to take on new initiatives on behalf of the student body.

Todd Harris ’14.5 is president of UCS. He can be contacted at


Johnson: What do you do?

In preparation for this special feature on the Undergraduate Council of Students, I was told to brainstorm ideas for what UCS should focus on this semester. I went through pages and pages of notebook paper, working on outlining my ideas in order to craft a cohesive column. The hours passed. My trash can overflowed with the discarded versions of my column that just weren’t good enough. I stayed up night after night, knowing that my piece could very well impact the coming year at Brown.

And then I realized I have no idea what UCS does.

I realized that part of why I had struggled to come up with a column of suggestions for our student government is that I was completely unaware of the group’s purpose. What, on a day-to-day basis, does UCS do? It seems to have a large number of meetings throughout the school year. What do members discuss at these meetings? Do they manage some kind of budget? Do they plan events for us? Are human sacrifices involved?

After doing some research, I learned that Todd Harris ’14.5 is president of this bizarre, secretive assembly. Was he elected democratically, or has his family ruled over UCS for generations? Is he in charge of funding student groups? Does he, like President Obama, have a list of enemies that can be taken out by drones at any time? Does he have Secret Service protection?

As I investigated UCS more and more, I realized that perhaps the first thing it should focus on is answering the question: What do you do? Because as of now, most Brown students have no idea. I understand that UCS has some sort of leadership role on campus. But are its members kind leaders or cruel tyrants like the editors-in-chief of The Herald? Perhaps we will never know.

Legend has it several outsiders have accidentally stumbled into a UCS meeting. But none has ever lived to tell about it.

If anything happens to Garret Johnson ’14 after the publication of this article, assume that the Council’s people got to him before he could flee the country.


Joutz: Bring students together

The 2013-14 academic year is an extraordinarily exciting time to be at Brown. President Christina Paxson has completed her first year and is about to release her strategic planning report after months of consultation with various stakeholders. Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron’s departure is a loss for the community, but the search committee for the next visionary chief academic officer is being formed as we speak. To top it all off, the 18-month-long celebration of Brown’s 250th anniversary begins March 2014.

During this period of both transition and reflection, UCS should focus on elevating the voice of students. UCS is only one piece of the puzzle. As a group representative of the entire undergraduate body, it is uniquely positioned to organize collaborative partnerships between various student organizations. UCS should step out of its comfort zone and work together with other communities on campus, such as the Brown Conversation, The Herald, the Curricular Resource Center, the Meiklejohn Program, the Swearer Center for Public Service and the Third World Center, among others. Targeted meetings by UCS, instead of blanket invitations to the Petteruti Lounge, actually give organizations a reason to come together, start a dialogue about the future of the University and contribute to the overall narrative of this 250-year-old institution of higher education.

It’s not enough for UCS to host an open forum with University administrators, unless members hand out hundreds of Duck & Bunny cupcakes. Few Brown students take an hour out of their days to have breakfast, let alone to go listen to people from University Hall talk about some strategic plan they may or may not have ever heard about.

The strategic planning report will shape both our remaining time as undergraduates and the future of the University as a whole. While the plan will define core values and ideas, it will leave a number of questions about how to effectively implement these ideas. UCS has the power to ensure that students are truly an integral part of this process. But how do you unite 6,000 undergraduates with 6,000 different sets of interests? A network of established relationships between partner organizations would provide a real foundation for the exchange of ideas.

By convening multiple organizations, UCS can tackle issues of mutual interest, identify problems and develop strategies to enact change. The diversity of voices will better inform the entire undergraduate population as it tries to address issues such as fostering deeper connections amongst current students and alums, community engagement in the greater Providence area and the University’s policy on financial aid.

So why shouldn’t UCS focus primarily on getting bigger cups at the Ratty or on “fixing advising”? I’m not arguing that these are unimportant, but UCS too frequently relies on these short-term initiatives to demonstrate impact or attract student attention. UCS does an admirable job of tackling administrative issues that affect the daily lives of undergraduates, but it is easy to get lost in the minutiae. The conversations that occur between the faculty, administrators in University Hall and the Fellows and Trustees of the Corporation are too important for students to ignore — because the outcomes of these discussions affect the future value of a Brown degree.

Marguerite Joutz ’15 is a member of The Brown Conversation. You can contact her at or 


Moraff: Disband

The Undergraduate Council of Students is a well-meaning organization. Sadly, its very existence makes no sense. If UCS members believe in their mission, they should disband the Council and encourage the creation of a student union that could truly build student power.

UCS is set up to provide administrators with friendly advice. The accomplishments UCS touts — creating an “advisee handbook,” overseeing the implementation of BearBucks, getting larger bowls in dining halls — are all well and good. But this isn’t a summer camp. It’s a multibillion-dollar operation, the actions of which have real consequences for thousands of people. There are serious issues at stake: our academic mission, tuition and financial aid, student housing, worker pay and our relationship with Providence. These are the issues that matter, and UCS has shown itself to be incapable of dealing with them.

The reason is simple: When it comes to these issues, University administrators are consistently in the wrong. Their guiding ethos is one that seeks to appease big business and attract wealthy students. This ethos expresses itself in luxury dorms and athletics facilities, high tuition, neglect of the humanities and a generally poisonous attitude toward running a university with a supposed social mission.

Which is why giving administrators advice doesn’t work. The only way to fight soaring tuition is to mobilize students. And we’ve tried — student groups not named UCS have been trying to deal with the things that matter for a long time. But UCS is worse than useless. It purports to represent an “official” student voice while being designed to keep students out. It takes major effort to win a UCS position that carries little power and substantial resume cachet. The end product of this hierarchy is a dozen-odd-member council of student government kids content to cozy up to administration.

In New England, towns with populations larger than the undergraduate student body run themselves through democratic town meetings, with every citizen eligible to take full part. There is no reason for UCS to exist beyond its members’ resumes. If the members of UCS want to do some good — and I believe they genuinely do — they should join those of us trying to actually organize.

Daniel Moraff ’14 can be reached at



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  1. Any council and any person should prioritize the departure of Margaret Klawunn, from all roles that she has at Brown University.

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