University News

Plan surfaces tensions around U.’s academic focus

Brown’s ‘university-college’ model will underlie discussions about future academic initiatives

By and
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 7, 2013

Undergraduate education has historically been a key academic priority for the University.

This article is part of the series Launching a Legacy?

“Brown University occupies a unique educational position. It is set apart from all but a very small group of institutions by the fact that it is a university-college,” wrote former President Henry Wriston in “The University College,” a 1946 pamphlet from the Corporation to alums.

More than 60 years later, the term remains a buzzword in conversations about Brown’s academic identity, and the question of Brown’s university-college status shaped much of the discourse surrounding “Building on Distinction,” President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan. The plan was approved by the Corporation at the end of October.

The plan includes several undergraduate-focused initiatives, including the development of new sophomore seminars and revamping introductory courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But simultaneously, the proposals outlined in the document must navigate tensions Wriston’s vision may not have anticipated: those between the liberal arts and professional studies, the humanities and the sciences, and the College and the Graduate School.

As the University moves forward with the final version of this plan, it must work to maintain its traditional strengths while pursuing new areas of interest. If the University devotes too little attention to graduate and scientific offerings, it risks falling behind its peers in key areas. But if the University focuses too much on expanding graduate and science programs, it risks losing its unique historical emphasis on undergraduate excellence.

And as Brown implements parts of the strategic plan that will affect academic programs, its stewards and constituents will find themselves faced with another question: What about Brown’s identity as an institution of higher learning is subject to change, and how can campus discourse shape Brown’s future?


Academic identity

The specific phrase of  “university-college” dominated initial campus reaction to the plan — specifically, students and faculty members criticized the draft for the term’s absence.

The phrase, included in the University’s mission statement, has been used to understand Brown since the turn of the century, when then-Professor of Religious Studies Henry Fowler wrote in the Brown Alumni Magazine: “The college is so far the central and principal part of Brown that I would style her a ‘college,’ and yet the college is so dominated by the university spirit that one must put ‘university’ as a qualifier before that name.”

Fowler celebrated Brown’s union of the intimacy of a liberal arts college with the academic opportunities of a larger institution with a graduate population. He rejoiced in the fact that Brown did not have professional schools, unlike competitors such as Harvard and Yale.

But Brown no longer resembles the university-college Fowler and Wriston imagined, a change Paxson noted at an open forum held to solicit feedback about the plan. Three professional schools — the Alpert Medical School, the School of Engineering and most recently the School of Public Health — have been added, partly to help the University compete with its peers.

“Building on Distinction” will likely expand upon that professional education, introducing new master’s programs and offering more professional training for those students.

Students and faculty members voiced discontent about the “university-college” term’s absence in the week following the plan’s release. At a meeting of the Undergraduate Council of Students, Paxson said she would revise the plan to add the term, “university-college,” a change that was put in place by the time the Corporation approved the document.

“That was a concern that genuinely took me by surprise,” Paxson told The Herald.

Though the plan did not originally mention the “university-college,” it remained committed to the term’s ideals, she said.

Several sources said they were pleased Paxson revised the draft, though others questioned the significance of the change.

“I was happy to see that Paxson took conversation seriously,” said Peggy Chang ’91, director of the Curricular Resource Center.

Marguerite Joutz ’15, member of the Brown Conversation, which aims to promote dialogue about University issues, asked Paxson at the open forum about the term’s absence.

“Upon reflection, I have some mixed feelings,” Joutz said. “While I think it’s incredibly important that it’s in the plan, what does just having the word in the plan mean in the grand scheme? Is this just acknowledging that people want this, or is this going to be an overarching principle?”


A university divided?

The plan’s focus on improving graduate education has raised questions about whether increased attention could pull from undergraduate education, the caliber of which is a hallmark of Brown.

“It’s been our competitive strength that we can offer a better undergraduate experience than the schools we compare ourselves with,” said Barrett Hazeltine GP’15, professor emeritus of engineering.

Brown’s attention to undergraduates is “unusual for major research universities,” said Matt Gelfand ’08, president and executive director of the Open Jar Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting curricular freedom. Brown sometimes “ends up categorized among some of the liberal arts colleges” for its dedication to undergraduate teaching, he said.

Several proposals in “Building on Distinction” would grow graduate programs. In addition to creating new master’s programs, the plan calls for developing “a set of metrics to track the quality of doctoral programs.”

Though the plan will grow Brown across the board, Paxson said the number of master’s students will increase at a faster rate than will other University constituencies. The plan will grow the undergraduate student body at a rate of about 1 percent per year and will grow the faculty at a rate that would keep the student-faculty ratio constant.

Joutz said many undergraduates have expressed concern that the plan could emphasize graduate students at the expense of undergrads. But she added that understanding may not account for how changes on the graduate level could benefit undergraduate programs as well.

“I’ve been puzzled … by this perceived tension between undergraduates and graduate students — the idea that if one group gets more, the other group gets less,” Paxson said. “This is not a zero-sum game.”

Several initiatives mentioned in Building on Distinction — for instance, an emphasis on “data fluency” and plans to implement technology-based teaching strategies — could affect both undergraduates and graduate students, the document states.

Graduate and undergraduate education are not part of a pie where, if the graduate slice grows, the slice dedicated to undergraduates necessarily shrinks, said Ken Miller ’70 P’02, professor of biology and member of the strategic planning Committee on Financial Aid.

Undergraduates can benefit from higher caliber graduate students who serve as teaching assistants, researchers, Graduate Writing Associates and mentors, said Keila Davis GS, president of the Graduate Student Council.

If Brown were a purely undergraduate institution, it would be unable to recruit certain faculty members who rely on skilled graduate students to advance their research, Miller said.

Elliot Maxwell ’68 P’06, one of the architects of the Open Curriculum, said he thinks the University has so far done “a good job of getting a balance” between pursuing undergraduate and graduate priorities.

Though he was concerned in the 1970s that adding a medical school “would shift the center of gravity of the institution in a way that was fundamentally threatening to the undergraduate experience,” Maxwell said his fears have not materialized.

Paxson said she appreciates the need for an “appropriate balance,” given Brown’s character as an institution “that focuses on undergraduate education but is very much a university, too.”

“If Wriston could see what Brown is doing now, he would be happy,” Paxson added.


Finding a focus

Historically, Brown has emphasized liberal arts education and earned renown for strong humanities programs. But some worried Building on Distinction’s focus on the sciences could detract from these priorities.

Engineering, once a part of the College, was moved three years ago into a separate School of Engineering. The plan proposes adding “incremental” new building space to engineering and calls for “enhancing the study of sciences, engineering and technology,” strengthening STEM offerings by focusing on “integrated, problem-based learning” and improving introductory courses.

Some voiced fears that the plan’s focus on science and engineering would lead to an emphasis on pre-professionalism, detracting from Brown’s traditional academic focus.

“If you’re not highlighting the liberal arts in the report, and you’re just assuming it will be a priority because we’ve always focused on it, there’s a danger that it won’t be a priority anymore,” Joutz said.

“I do worry a little about the role of the liberal arts,” Hazeltine said.

But others said they were not concerned, saying the liberal arts remain a hallmark of the undergraduate experience.

Brown is “very strong in the liberal arts … in the wider world and in the Ivy League,” said Joseph Pucci, associate professor of classics and comparative literature.

Even engineering students are “perfectly positioned to have a great liberal arts education,” said Lawrence Larson, dean of the School of Engineering.

The plan also introduces new sophomore seminars, which would replicate the small, discussion-based courses currently designed specifically for first-years — a move that could bolster liberal arts and specifically humanities curricula at Brown.

Still, many feared the plan’s attention to STEM could endanger the humanities, which have recently faced declining popularity and enrollment at Brown and beyond while STEM fields have grown.

“There is a feeling in the minds of some people that the pendulum might have swung too far in the STEM direction,” said Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature.

But the focus on STEM is intended to address an existing need for more students interested in those disciplines, Reginster said.

“Attention is self-contained within STEM,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the humanities and shouldn’t be read as posing a threat.”

Paxson delivered a speech at the Annual Meeting of the National Humanities Alliance in Washington this March, a gesture Pucci said suggests there is no need to worry about the fate of the humanities at Brown.

Some stressed a symbiosis between the humanities and STEM fields.

“A lot of the STEM education that we’re talking about is actually making medical education more humanistic,” said Patricia Ybarra, associate professor of theatre arts and performance studies and co-chair of the strategic planning Committee on Educational Innovation.

“Science needs the humanities and humanities need the science,” Miller said.


A constant commitment

Some highlighted the Open Curriculum and commitment to dialogue as enduring hallmarks of Brown that should remain intact as the University implements changes proposed in the strategic plan. But questions remain about how prevalent dialogue is on campus — and about how influential that dialogue is.

When the Open Curriculum was created, “Brown immediately got into the top tier” and became one of the most competitive Ivy League schools, Weinstein said. Since then, “it hasn’t given up anything, and it’s still there.”

The curriculum was born of campus-wide conversation about how students should approach and engage with higher education. “When we were recommending the New Curriculum, we thought the process of talking about education at Brown was as important as the answers,” Maxwell said.

Commitment to campus-wide discourse was cited by students, alums and faculty members as integral to Brown’s culture.

“That is what is uniquely Brown. People are willing to engage in this dialogue, come to the table and have an opinion,” Joutz said.

Some said the strategic planning process demonstrated the University has maintained that commitment.

Paxson and Provost Mark Schlissel’s P’15 requests for feedback at multiple campus forums showed the “administration is really serious about gathering (student) input,” Miller said.

But recent data suggests a lack of broad student engagement with the plan. A poll conducted by The Herald Sept. 30-Oct. 1 revealed that about two-thirds of undergraduates either had no opinion on the strategic plan or had not heard of it. About half of undergraduates indicated they were aware of the plan but not enough to form an opinion, while 16 percent did not know the plan existed.

And recent events may suggest student input does not always significantly influence administrative decisions. In a poll conducted Monday, about 42 percent of students indicated they believe their opinions have little to no influence over University policy. Only about 7 percent of students reported believing students strongly influence University decisions.

Professor of Computer Science John Savage P’88 P’95 P’03 P’05 GP’17 said that though students were included in the process of creating Building on Distinction, he questioned how much influence they actually had.

Still, dialogue could play an important role in determining the plan’s implementation. Though the plan was approved at the end of October, specifics of how its initiatives will be pursued remain to be decided.

Whether and how conversations about the plan develop in coming years could affect the scope and specifics of major changes to Brown, and could in turn shape what legacy Paxson’s tenure ultimately leaves.


—With reporting by Michael Dubin and Kiki Barnes

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  1. However Brown is called, and however Brown should be called, nothing will work if we have an incompetent president, an irresponsible dean, and an incompetent chancellor.

    • Duh. Thank goodness we have none of those. Our President comes from an institution with its act together and with much stronger international repute. She knows what she’s doing.

      The maniacal student groups and divest coal cult are the only ones giving the new administration a hard time.

      It’s too bad that group on campus is so self-righteously blinded that ad hominem attacks are their argumentative weapon of first resort.

      • alum yourself says:

        So she came from Princeton. But she is not handling Brown well at all.

        The “maniacal student groups and divest coal cult” are in her charge. The buck stops with her. That’s why she was given the job. And again, she is not doing it well.

        And I suppose Princeton didn’t teach her how to do a strategic plan? Nor does the chancellor expect one from her? And the bright eyed dean? What is she doing? Take a hard look.

  2. “But if the University focuses too much on expanding graduate and science programs, it risks losing its unique historical emphasis on undergraduate excellence.”

    I fail to understand how expanding science programs implies less of an emphasis on undergraduate excellence. Non sequitur much? Expanding science programs can only be a good thing.

    • Not a non sequitur at all.

      In general, attracting strong professors in the sciences requires providing them with top-quality (graduate) students to work with, as well as time and resources to further the research that has made them prominent. This frequently involves very large outlays for lab space and equipment, as well as (obviously) a strong graduate program in the scholar’s chosen field. It takes financial resources away from other areas (which are generally less capital intensive), as well as focus. And – the professors are likely to have greater interest in their research (and in using grad students to support this research this research) than they have in teaching undergrad courses.

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