Roth: Thoughts on the strategic plan

Guest Columnist
Monday, September 30, 2013

“Building on Distinction: A New Plan for Brown” is without a doubt a well-crafted document that presents a vision for taking Brown in a certain direction — one that is, at first glance, difficult to criticize. Who could find fault with such important goals as “Academic Excellence,” “Educational Leadership,” “Integrative Scholarship,” diversity among faculty, staff and students and need-blind admission, among others? But when I look a little closer and ask for more specifics, I find myself thinking of that old saying: “The devil is in the details.” Or lack thereof, in some cases.

I look at this document as a humanist interested in integrating my work in the classical views of human nature and human potential in Asia with the creative arts and the relevant brain sciences, and I see a strategic plan dominated by the sciences. In this plan, the arts and humanities do not stand on an equal footing with the more lucrative sciences. Despite a paragraph bowing to the humanities and another to the arts, this document is dominated by the sciences. For every idea proffered about the arts or the humanities there are three for the sciences: improving STEM education, premedical education, data fluency and analysis, digital technology and so on.

There are other areas of concern in this document. While the paragraph on doctoral education promises increased support for graduate students — or at least “the most promising applicants” — I worry about the proposal to use new “metrics to track the quality of doctoral programs and, over time, to tie resources for doctoral education to demonstrated success.” That’s a vague and potentially chilling phrase: How is success defined? In job placement? But doesn’t the availability of jobs in most fields vary greatly decade to decade? Would low placement rates cause a graduate program to lose its funding, punished not because of its inferiority but because of its field? I saw something like this happen in England in the mid-1980s when the government under Margaret Thatcher found a way to “make redundant” dozens of faculty and their “irrelevant” positions in London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies only to have a commission a decade or so later advise the government it was in the national interest to re-establish these positions.

But perhaps, in the last analysis, the biggest reason I find fault with this well articulated vision of Brown’s future is that while it clearly has a well-defined “head,” it is very difficult to perceive its “heart,” despite stating, “Overall, our plans reflect Brown’s deep commitment to the principles and goals of a liberal education. The need for a global citizenry well-versed in the breadth of disciplinary approaches to societal issues and grounded in skills of critical thinking, communication, data analysis and cultural understanding will become increasingly acute in the years ahead. The education our students receive will equip them to be leaders in their respective fields as well as outstanding global citizens.”

There are no plans in this document for giving students the ethical, moral and contemplative tools to be healthier human beings and better global citizens. These cannot be found in “critical thinking, communication and data analysis” alone, which are rational and technical skills. Those skills are important, to be sure, but certainly not sufficient preparation for the challenges our students are going to face. Where is the place in Brown’s future for the essential human skills of being able to bring ethical context to one’s scientific research or clinical treatments? To bring tranquility to an agitated and distracted mind? To develop a keenly felt sense of compassion for the suffering of others — not just a rational understanding? Where is the focus on cultivating the mindful ability to put this compassion into action?

These human skills, so well conceptualized in the humanities, can be even more effectively taught through combining traditional humanistic, artistic and scientific third-person studies with the critical first-person pedagogies pioneered by Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. Our initiative is now being copied at Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Virginia, Emory University and others. Developing these human skills is essential to liberal learning in the 21st century, in large part because doing so gives students the tools necessary to cope with the stressful personal and ethical challenges they will face in bringing to a cynical world their rational knowledge and commitment to improving the lives of others.

Recognizing and providing the opportunity to cultivate these human skills is grounded in an appreciation of the fundamental interrelatedness of all life on this planet, a fundamental tenet of the worldviews of the great civilizations of Asia and Africa. So while I also see in this document the correct mention of diversity and cultural understanding, what I don’t see reflected therein is a genuine appreciation of the insights of these great civilizations that clearly place human values on a par with technological innovation.

It is also disappointing to see absolutely no mention in this new plan of any of the relevant recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, which was unanimously approved by the faculty at its February meeting earlier this year. There is no mention of the value of emeritus faculty and the importance of continuing to develop ways to give them meaningful roles in our community as they move into new phases of their careers. There is no mention of the ethical responsibility of the University for the health care in retirement of the very people who built the university to its place of excellence in the world of higher education. Nor is there the slightest mention of raising funds to help ensure that all Brown employees have the opportunity to send their children who merit admission to the very university they have helped raise to the level of distinction this plan wishes to build upon. As our report shows, Brown ranks close to last in tuition assistance compared to 19 peer institutions, many with endowments similar to ours.

In the end, as a community, we need to model for our students the values we teach them to bring to the world. We can’t just talk about them — we have to live them. We need to treat the University’s employees as compassionately as we advocate that our students act. And we need to help them realize that the values we wish to bring to the world at large must start within the hearts — as well as minds — of each and every one of us.

While this new plan is rich in commitments to develop the sciences, it falls short in ideas for how to develop a perspective concerned with value, meaning and ethics in the academy in the face of the onslaught of science in the 21st century. Despite its promising rhetoric, I regret to say that this new strategic plan falls far short of the meaning and purpose of Brown’s traditional emphasis on liberal learning, so well articulated by Brown philosopher, educator and dean of a century ago, Alexander Meiklejohn: “To acquire the diverse range of perspectives necessary not to make a living, but to have a life worth living.”

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  1. Daniel Moraff says:

    This is great.

  2. “To bring tranquility to an agitated and distracted mind? To develop a keenly felt sense of compassion for the suffering of others — not just a rational understanding? Where is the focus on cultivating the mindful ability to put this compassion into action?”

    This reeks of privilege– it’s not unreasonable that an incredibly expensive education should equip graduates to, I don’t know, get a good job. If you want emotional fulfillment, get a therapist, not an Ivy League degree.

    • Pat Loftus says:

      Roth never undermines Brown’s ability to assist its graduates in finding jobs, his issue is with statements like “The education our students receive will equip them to be leaders in their respective fields as well as outstanding global citizens.”

      Surely, Brown cannot think that to be a leader in their field and an outstanding global citizen a student requires purely vocational and academic success, which is what I would attribute to ‘privilege’. What you are referring to is not emotional fulfillment either, but an equanimous understanding that everyone suffers the same as everyone else – which is fundamental to living a fulfilling life. Having all the honors Brown could possibly bestow upon you is nothing if you are unhappy with yourself.

  3. A Spade a spade says:

    The problem with the plan is that there was no invitation to the wide community to lay input. It was drawn up by small, non-representative committees. And now there’s a month before it goes to vote–certainly not enough time to gestate or input to have a clear mandate. To call the plan drawn by the community is simple disingenuous.

    • I’m sorry but this statement is simply incorrect. After the plan was announced there were PLENTY of calls to the community to step up and share opinions. There were forums, and requests for letters regarding the new strategic plan. Todd Harris broke down the strategic plan in a letter sent to all undergrads, and urged us all to read and respond.

      I do agree that it has its flaws, but I think we need to realize that we dropped the ball as students when were not proactive about debating the strategic plan until the decision for divestment came out.

  4. tischma tusch says:

    Roth for Dean of College. No, scratch that. Roth for Chair of Trustees!

  5. Pat Loftus says:

    Hasn’t it always been a plague of education to value the practical over the internal? What must really be taught is the union between the two, what connects the outside world to the inside, from there a student can freely flow from sciences to humanities as if they were the same.

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