University News

Questions of U.’s mission emerge at planning forum

The student body may grow by 1 percent per year, President Christina Paxson said

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 25, 2013

President Christina Paxson spoke about her strategic plan draft at a forum Tuesday. With expanding professional schools, Brown is no longer a “university-college” as former President Henry Wriston defined it, she said.

University expansion, financial aid and absence of detail in President Christina Paxson’s recently released strategic plan dominated discussion at a forum Tuesday hosted by Paxson and Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 to solicit feedback on the plan from students, faculty members and staff.

Proposals to expand the University — in terms of numbers of students and faculty, educational scope and physical space — were at the heart of the discussion, which attracted a crowd filling close to half of List Art Center 120.


Student body size

Paxson estimated the faculty and undergraduate bodies would grow by about 1 percent per year over the course of the plan, adding that she anticipated a higher growth rate for master’s students. Implementation of the plan is expected to span about a decade.

In response to a question from Justice Gaines ’16, Paxson said the University could double the number of students admitted without suffering any decline in the quality of the student body because of the tremendous applicant pool. If the University can handle more students, she said, turning them away unnecessarily would undermine Brown’s educational mission.

Growing the student body would also put the University on better financial footing, she said.

“We are a very tuition-dependent university,” Schlissel said. “If we don’t allow ourselves to grow very modestly at the same time we build new programs and hire new faculty, then that puts even more upward pressure on tuition for the number of students who are here.”

“The idea is to strike the right balance, to hit the sweet spot without giving up the kind of … highly interactive mode of education that makes the undergraduate program so special to allow us to get to the scale where we capture efficiencies,” he said.

Paxson said the increase in students would be accompanied by an increase in faculty, adding that the plan aims to maintain the student-faculty ratio rather than a particular number of students.


The ‘university-college’?

Some questioned Brown’s mission and the role undergraduate education should play in defining the University’s identity.

Marguerite Joutz ’15, a member of Brown Conversation — a group that aims to promote dialogue about campus issues — said she was concerned to see the term “university” used in the report as opposed to “university-college,” which is used in Brown’s mission statement.

Paxson said the reason for that choice of wording was because “most people off campus have no clue what that term means.”

She also said Brown is no longer a university-college as former president Henry Wriston defined the term — a university without professional schools. Because the University has the School of Engineering, the Alpert Medical School and the School of Public Health, it has moved away from Wriston’s model, she said.

But Paxson said Brown remains a university-college in spirit because of its commitment to a liberal arts education.

“Right now if you ask people what’s great about Brown, they will say truthfully, ‘Oh, Brown, that’s that school with that amazing undergraduate program,’ ” Paxson said during an overview of the strategic plan. “That’s wonderful, and I want people to still think that in a decade. But I also want them to say this is the university that has the most remarkable programs in brain science, in the humanities, in the performing arts, in medicine.”


Growing the graduate school

Others expressed concern about the University’s proposed expansion into the Jewelry District.

Matthew Lyddon GS, former president of Graduate Student Council, said he was skeptical the Jewelry District was the “answer to the shortfall of graduate student departmental space.”

Paxson responded that the University is committed to growing graduate programs, calling expansion of graduate resources “essential.”

Lyddon said he took issue with what he called the plan’s neglect of doctoral students. He contrasted what he said was the significant focus on expanding master’s programs with a lack of attention to the needs of doctoral students.

In an interview last week with The Herald, Paxson said the move to grow master’s programs was motivated not only by academic incentives but also because new programs could create new revenue streams for the University.

Lyddon said though he knows administrators understand the issues doctoral students face, the strategic plan represents a missed opportunity to present those issues to the Corporation.


Academic advising

Stanley Stewart ’16 said he was disappointed the plan did not mention undergraduate advising.

But Paxson said advising’s importance was so obvious that it seemed unnecessary to include in the plan. “It doesn’t even need to be there because we know we need to do it,” she said.

“If you look at statistics on student satisfaction with advising over the last couple years, things have really improved due to very concentrated efforts on the part of the administration,” Paxson added.

Undergraduate Council of Students President Todd Harris ’14.5, who made undergraduate advising a pillar of his presidential campaign, told The Herald he thinks the University has room to improve.

“It’s still a priority for students, and it should be a priority for the administration as well,” Harris said.


Financial aid

Lawrence Goodman, staff writer for Brown Alumni Magazine, asked about the role of need-blind admission for international students in the University’s commitment to a “meritocratic” admissions process.

Of international students, 34 percent currently receive financial aid, compared to 45 percent of the student body as a whole, Paxson said, adding that forging ahead on need-blind admission for international students is a top priority.

She said making the University more affordable and accessible for all students “is something I feel very strongly about.”

“I saw (Princeton) go through the transition from being not need-blind to being need-blind for international students, and it changed the character of the place in a very interesting way,” Paxson said.


Broad strokes

Multiple students voiced displeasure with what they called the plan’s lack of detail. Joseph DiZoglio ’15 called it “vague” and Daniel Moraff ’14, a Herald opinions columnist, said it was full of “abstractions” and “platitudes.”

Moraff said the planning process created the illusion of student input but that many ideas in the interim committee reports did not make it into the draft of the plan, mitigating student contributions.

But Paxson said the document is a high-level strategic plan, not an operational plan. The initial draft was 45 pages, but administrators trimmed it to its current 11-page length so that people would be likelier to read it, Paxson said.

Paxson also said when the plan reaches the implementation stage and operational plans are made, there will be “a wealth of information to draw on” from the interim reports.

A staff member from the music department commended the plan’s commitment to the humanities and performing arts, but she said the University needs to reexamine the size of support staff and individual staffers’ workloads.

Schlissel concluded the forum by encouraging more written feedback to the plan, which he said has been limited in the six days since the plan was released. So far, he told The Herald, he has only received eight written responses.

The draft of the plan will not be revised prior to October’s Corporation meeting, but a written summary of the feedback from the forum will be created and made available to the Corporation, Paxson told The Herald.

Student input will also be relevant in relation to the “sequencing, timing and prioritizing” of the plan’s implementation, she said.

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  1. Daniel Moraff says:

    Two excellent questions were raised about the plan’s impact on the neighborhood (which was of course never consulted) and its neglect of climate issues. Not sure why these questions about real problems were ignored in this article while the question about why they didn’t call it a university college (which is not a real problem) got half a dozen grafs. Pretty weird!

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