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Roundtable: What, if anything, is missing from the strategic plan?

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Opinions Columnist, Brown for Financial Aid President, Opinions Columnist and Opinions Columnist
Friday, September 27, 2013

Hudson ’14: What the strategic plan is missing

SMART is a management literature acronym for effective strategic planning. It deems a strategic plan as good if it sets goals that are “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.” Brown’s strategic plan, “Building on Distinction” fails each of these standards. It isn’t specific. There isn’t anything to be measured. There is no time bound on any of the proposals. At best, there might be an argument that it is achievable and relevant.

The biggest flaw with the plan is the lack of specifics. The 11-page document is chock full of educational buzzwords commonly heard at the Brown Faculty Club but foreign to many readers. Phrases such as “informed civil discourse,” “integrative scholarship,” “global citizenry” and “creative expression” all make an appearance. But very little of the report states concrete goals the University wants to achieve. The most specific items I could identify were more of a hodgepodge: plans to invest in biomedical science, expand graduate programs, create more generous compensation packages for faculty and prepare for a series of renovations and construction projects.

Some may say the lack of specificity is appropriate, since a strategic document is not the place for tactics. This can be true. But it is also true that too broad of a mission is unhelpful. For instance, if a general declared his strategy was to win the battle, he would have no strategy.

Several points in the report should concern undergraduates. First, the phrase “university-college,” synonymous with Brown’s commitment to teaching and research, does not appear in the plan. Moreover, the plan’s goals for undergraduate programs are modest compared to its plans to expand graduate offerings. The plan therefore suggests that Brown is continuing to morph into a research university at the expense of its undergraduate education.

The plan anticipates this criticism. According to the plan, “education and research reinforce one another.” But the reality is the vast majority of undergraduate education is not affected by research. Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards, student research and research that affects undergraduate course material is a very small portion of the sum total of undergraduate education. For the most part, investment in graduate programs comes at the expense of improving undergraduate programs.

Graduate programs may provide the University with more revenue and prestige, but it isn’t clear that undergraduate education warrants less attention. In this time of rapidly rising tuition and a weak job market, prospective undergraduates will pay greater attention to the quality of undergraduate education when selecting schools. It’s unlikely that Brown’s reputation for strong undergraduate education will last without continued investment.

The plan also disturbingly combines race and educational decisions. The document calls for “developing diversity” in faculty. The plan states that “a diverse faculty is an essential component of scholarly excellence.” Personally, I care that my professors are excellent teachers, whatever race they may be. Most other Brown students think so, too. A Herald poll in December 2012 found that a majority of students support race-blind faculty hiring. I think the administration should take a cue from student views: Most 20-somethings on College Hill don’t think it is appropriate to hire on the basis of race. Why not start off the next 10  years with a commitment to character, not color?

Despite the flaws in the strategic plan, Brown has the potential to be an excellent college 10 years from now. I hope that students and faculty members take the opportunity to provide feedback. That way, perhaps the plan can become a mission worth striving for.

Oliver Hudson ’14 can be reached at oliver_hudson@brown.edu 

 

Mechanick ’15: Commitment to financial aid

The greatest omission of the strategic plan is the lack of any commitment to increasing financial aid. Any plan that does not place financial aid as a top priority of the University is in error on several critical levels.

First, increasing financial aid is central to improving education at Brown. Education is collaborative. Rejecting students on the basis of insufficient affluence is not only a tragedy for the student who never comes to Brown but also for the rest of us — each of us misses out on the perspective and insight that student could have brought to campus. Progress in every department accelerates with greater diversity of thought and more minds of the highest caliber. By increasing financial aid, we enable the Office of Admission to accept the best possible class of students — more socioeconomically diverse and better qualified. As a result, all students receive a better education.

Second, increasing financial aid is the best way for Brown to ensure its competitiveness in the long run. Brown cannot continue offering financial aid packages among the worst in the Ivy League and suffer no ill consequences. Given our current financial aid awards, we cannot attract the best students to apply to Brown, we will not have the students we admit choose Brown over our peer institutions, and we leave students’ educations constrained by heavy debt burdens and insufficient resources. A university that is less selective than its peers, that has a lower yield rate than its peers, and that has poorer alum achievement than its peers is not likely to be one that increases in prestige and outperforms rivals. This lowers the value of a Brown degree. Increasing financial aid is a necessary condition of strengthening Brown’s competitiveness with peer institutions.

Third, to not make increasing financial aid a top priority is to ignore the legitimate structures by which members of the Brown community should be able to affect their university. Over a quarter of the student body signed a petition supporting Brown for Financial Aid’s call for increased financial aid. The Undergraduate Council of Students’ campus-wide poll last year found that over 90 percent of the student body supports increases to financial aid. Every elected member of student government has signed on to Brown for Financial Aid’s platform. The strategic planning Committee on Financial Aid — composed of faculty members, administrators and undergraduates — agreed to three large increases to financial aid. Not one of the three is in the strategic plan. The administration must respect the will of those who compose the University and prioritize financial aid appropriately.

Finally, going need blind and reducing the financial burden on students with a greater need is a moral imperative. Discrimination because of insufficient affluence is abhorrent. It was the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice back in 2006 that called for need-blind admission — just one of many moral voices whose cries have fallen on deaf ears. For as long as the University prioritizes other spending priorities over financial aid, it will continue strengthening socioeconomic barriers rather than dissolving them. We should not tolerate a Brown that worsens inequality and injustice.

President Christina Paxson and other administrators may well believe making commitments has no benefit, that they can trust themselves to expand financial aid as quickly as is prudent. But there will always be reasons to delay, to shy away from taking a bold stand. If commitments to expand financial aid are made, our network of alum donors will ensure those commitments are achieved, secure in the knowledge that their donations will make a better version of Brown available to the next generation. Without substantial commitments to increasing financial aid, the Corporation ought to reject this strategic plan as imprudent, unwise and immoral.

 

Alex Mechanick ’15 is the president of Brown for Financial Aid

 

Powers ’15: A goal

This topic is predisposed to generating unproductive debate without extremely careful consideration. Much as they do in politics, people will end up talking past each other and arguing about particulars when the disagreements lie at a more fundamental level.

First, we must consider what “missing” means. The term necessarily implies a specific goal. If no goal exists, arbitrary or otherwise, then the idea of “missing” is meaningless. Let me provide an example.

Imagine you’re a painter. You’ve nearly completed your commissioned work, but something seems incomplete. You wonder, “What’s missing?” Perhaps the painting’s commissioner said he wanted more of the color blue, or perhaps he wanted you to include some symbol that has special meaning to him. In either case, it becomes clear what is missing and what should be added.

What if there were no goal? Without a goal, all outcomes are definitionally identical since there is no scale with which to differentiate them. To say A is “better” than B necessitates reference to a quantity with respect to which such is the case. “Missing” implicitly alludes to such a quantity or goal. So maybe a more apt question to contemplate would be “What is the goal for which we’re aiming?”

The most obvious answer is the least satisfying. We can regard the goal as President Christina Paxson’s artificial construction and analyze if it has been successfully effectuated. To this end, nothing is “missing” from the plan due to its inherently vague scope.

Specifically, Paxson told The Herald, “this is a strategic plan, not a tactical plan.” It is not a stated goal of the strategic plan to have concrete solutions, so much as it is to state the general direction in which the University wishes to move. The goal here is actually quite small, and it would be hard to argue it was not accomplished. That is not to say that it has no significance, as it is a necessary first step toward defining — and ideally realizing — more specific “tactics” that can directly benefit the University.

A more intriguing way to interpret the question — and the way I think most people will interpret it — is to pick a more interesting goal. But we should be cautious here, as this step can degenerate into individuals talking past one another. Far too often, people will dispute specific costs and benefits without having agreed upon a single goal. What costs do we wish to minimize? What benefits do we wish to maximize? It’s not surprising to note disagreements in policy when there are underlying disagreements on what that policy should be in the first place.

I have no desire to embrace a single “ultimate” goal for Brown, as I think such a goal could not have objective significance. This difficulty lies at the heart of the debate at hand. Unfortunately, I don’t really think an easy answer exists.

But perhaps it might not matter. If people could agree on some important goals of the University, then we could start talking about how to implement strategies to that effect. But agreement is a rare thing — especially at Brown — and I’m grateful we don’t live in such a boring world.

 

Andrew Powers ’15 can be reached at andrew_powers@brown.edu

 

Moraff ’14: Substance

Brown administrators are really, really eager to talk about the strategic plan. There are multiple forums and a website where one can talk and talk and talk about the strategic plan. It’s a shame that it’s basically impossible to talk about the strategic plan because there is essentially nothing in the strategic plan.

The plan is 11 solid pages of generalities. We will “enhance science education for all students.” “Virtual communication tools will be developed to further connect the Brown campus with the Brown community around the world.” Enhance how? What tools? What are the implications of any of this? I couldn’t tell you, and neither could the plan. It talks about “focused investments” without saying what they are. It refers to online education as a potentially transformative force without delving into the potentially very concerning specifics. The Undergraduate Council of Students and The Herald have insisted this is a plan worthy of discussion, which seems odd, given that there’s nothing much to discuss.

To be sure, the few things that are in the plan are incredibly problematic. The section on financial aid mentions nothing about controlling tuition or significantly increasing financial aid packages and indicates that we will continue to reject international and Resumed Undergraduate Education students for the crime of not being rich enough. The section on building commits to a bundle of projects ranging from the unnecessary to the bizarre. The section on staff contains absolutely nothing but abstractions, which maybe reflects the total exclusion of non-managerial staff from the process.

But the overall takeaway is this: The administration claimed when this whole process started that it would be a chance for the community to give meaningful input. While the process was seriously flawed, at least there was actual student and faculty involvement, resulting in a series of interim reports that contained things actually worth talking about. The administration then took these reports and compressed them into a bland list of the obvious. It’s hard not to conclude that they cared far more about creating the appearance of listening than about actually listening.

It’s business as usual for the administrators. They’ll make the actual decisions when no one is paying attention, counting on an unorganized student body to look the other way as this place becomes more glitzy and more expensive. They shouldn’t pretend they’ve given anyone the opportunity to meaningfully participate in university governance, and neither should we. Maybe we should even organize to stop them.

 

 Daniel Moraff ’14 can be reached at daniel.moraff@gmail.com 

6 Comments

  1. The trustees set a low bar for themselves and for Paxson. They are all dancing to “limbo rock”, going under that low bar.

    Larry Tisch is a failure as a corporate leader. I don’t understand what he is doing at Brown. He should go back to being a good alum, and let effective people take over.

    These guys address all issues the same way. They ignore them, irresponsibly.

  2. Hudson obviously has never taken a single class at Brown.

    It is virtually impossible to not be taught, graded, or helped at the Wroting Center and other places at Brown.

    Undergrads don’t benefit from research? Well, I mean there is still the possibility that Brown’s brain initiative might one day allow paralyzed people to be independent again–but you know, it’s not like you need the prestige. And it’s not like 90% of the science papers and a good 30% of the humanities papers you read while working on your senior thesis weren’t written or co-written by a grad student. And it’s not like every language class, intro course in social science, or discussion section in humanities and social science you took here was taught by a grad student, right? And it’s not like the vast majority of science exams are graded by grads, right.

    Oh wait…

    And when you go get your next paper checked at the WC, don’t forget to bring this column.

    I’m sure the grads there will love you.

    • “It is virtually impossible to not be taught, graded, or helped at the Wroting Center and other places at Brown.”

      Looks like you haven’t been to the “Wroting Center” lately yourself…..

      • Looks like I was typing this on my iPad and missed the tiny space between O and I.

        If that is the only response you have… Thanks for pointing out the typos i made. That was meant to read “by graduate students at the Writing Center and other places at Brown.”

        Then again if this is the only answer you have, I must have hit a nerve. Defensive much? I’ll give you another chance to post a real argument and not just an ad hominem attack…

        This university needs graduate students to thrive. Considering the two independently is insane and unwise.

    • He said it was unclear the value of the relationship between graduate RESEARCH programs and undergrad education was. Not that it was worthless.

      Also, you’re conflating humanities programs like WC with hard sciences like the brain initiative. When people talk about research in this discussion and the plan, they’re talking about science not humanities. The concern with the University-College ommision is that humanities are going to be forgotten for the high margin sciences. I think you’ve illustrated their point.

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