Weinstein ’17: Brown decides to chase its ‘peers’

Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Herald reported on Provost Richard Locke’s P’17 new financial plan for the University Oct. 5. In the article, ostensibly about Brown’s fiscal situation, were several comparisons to what Locke calls our peer institutions. One of the purposes of Locke’s plan, according to the article, is to further Brown’s “emergence as an international research university.” That is, to make us more like our peers.

And who are those peers? The article named Dartmouth, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet, by two key metrics, those universities are objectively not our peers.

First, those universities are already more research- and graduate-oriented than Brown. Brown’s total enrollment contains a lower percentage of graduate students — 23 percent — than Dartmouth’s (32 percent), Yale’s (56 percent) or MIT’s (60 percent). Brown is more dependent on undergraduate tuition for revenue, and it shows in our enrollment balance.

More importantly, Brown’s endowment per student (undergraduate and graduate) gets blown out of the water by that of our supposed peers. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for Brown’s $362,000 per student, but that’s only half of Dartmouth’s $715,000 per student, according to Dartmouth’s endowment value and enrollment. MIT has three times as much: $1.16 million, according to its endowment value and enrollment. Yale commands over $2 million of endowment for every person enrolled. In purely monetary terms, we are as much a peer of these institutions as David was a peer of Goliath.

This is not to say that these institutions are not our peers in terms of the quality of their faculties, students or campuses. But Brown’s faculty and administration should reconsider Locke’s financial plan, which seeks to emulate institutions with several times Brown’s resources.

Furthering a university’s emergence as an international research institution is a costly undertaking. This year’s budget is balanced, but Locke claims the University will face a peak $32 million operating deficit out of a $1 billion budget. In my view, this deficit is a result of Locke and President Christina Paxson’s P’19 fiscal priorities: the endowment, construction and research expansion.

Locke announced that the University will reduce the amount it withdraws from the endowment from 5 percent to 4.5 percent. Though Locke said the University aims to grow the endowment such that the difference in proportion minimally affects the dollar value of these withdrawals, 5 percent is a reasonable withdrawal rate in comparison with many of our peers — Yale withdraws 5.2 percent annually  — and even philanthropic foundations do so.

Another deficit driver is construction: most notably the new engineering research building, which is expected to cost $88 million up front and several million dollars a year in upkeep. There’s also the decision to renovate half the Rockefeller Library’s second floor into a graduate-only work space.

In the article, Locke announced the goal of increasing Brown’s graduate programs to a total of 120 master’s students and 95 PhDs. While master’s and professional students pay tuition, PhD candidates receive a stipend and benefits from the University. If some of these research projects win federal funding, they become net assets to Brown, but outside grants may not fully cover the costs of research expansion.

To pay for all this, Locke asked for a 5 percent year-over-year tuition increase at some point, higher than the normal 4 percent hike. This year, Brown is asking even more from students’ families to fund its emergence as an international research university — money that could otherwise go to financial aid.

If Locke and Paxson are looking to enhance Brown’s reputation, they would be well served to look to Henry Wriston, Brown’s president from 1937 to 1955, who raised our profile more than any other administrator in Brown’s history. Wriston coined the term “university-college” and committed Brown to its residential undergraduates. That, along with changes in curriculum and admission policies, raised Brown’s national status.

Brown’s best assets are its campus, the quality of its faculty and the open curriculum. Brown should prioritize its university-college rather than chase the accomplishments of its peers. Wriston once wrote that “the imitativeness of institutions has been the undoing of many,” and the current administration would be well advised to learn this lesson.

Paxson has named the core agenda of her presidency “Building on Distinction,” yet she misunderstands what Brown’s distinction truly is. Our distinction is being a university-college built on the quality of our undergrad experience, not being a relatively poor, relatively less selective and relatively less prestigious research university.

Duncan Weinstein ’17 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.


  1. I wonder why the author turns a blind eye to the recently announced Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan in his analysis of Brown’s allocation of financial resources.

    The distinction between general and earmarked gifts to Brown is fundamental to any serious analysis of Brown’s financial planning. Most brick & mortar projects are lead or entirely funded by alumni who have explicit intentions for the money’s use.

    The new engineering building, for example, was kicked off in 2013 thanks to 44 million dollars donated specifically for its construction. Ditto the Nelly, ditto the Granoff Center, ditto the Watson Center, ditto the Watson CIT, ditto…

    Facilities fall into a different category than your other examples. If nothing else, most brick & mortar improvements benefit the experience of all students/customers while they are at Brown.

    The engineering building is a pittance in comparison to the $160M to be spent on the DIAP. I’m not sure if alumni who make general gifts to Brown or contribute regularly to the annual fund are entirely content (or aware) that their donations are being used to implement the plan.

    It’s one thing to support athletics, the arts, or specific academic programs through new facilities. It’s something altogether different to use the University’s non-earmarked money to support programs that some argue (not without merit) are ideologically driven.

    I doubt very much that an announcement of a lead donation for the new ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Center for Campus Diversity and Inclusion’ is forthcoming anytime soon. Until then, expenditures by Brown on initiatives like the DIAP deserve more scrutiny.

  2. I found this piece to be not well written (starting sentences with conjunctions, overuse of adverbs, use of cliches) and the author appears to be misinformed about how capital expenditures (particularly those which are gift funded) and operating budgets work.

  3. “Our distinction is being a university-college built on the quality of our undergrad experience, not being a relatively poor, relatively less selective and relatively less prestigious research university.”

    Well put, but too timid.

    I agree with Duncan that it makes no sense for Brown to benchmark itself against universities that frankly have much more resources. That is a formula for failure. To claim that Brown can be “as broad as” and “as good as” MIT, Princeton or Dartmouth means that Brown will always fall short.

    Paxson’s strategic plan, which is neither strategic, nor a plan, continues to misguide the University’s goals by pretending that Brown can somehow make up its deficits in the conventional manner–increase tuition, increase expenses, increase the endowment. Brown has not been able to demonstrate success in increasing the endowment in any meaningful way. It has also lagged its peers in endowment fund performance–so that won’t save us either.

    What Brown needs, and what we have argued since 2013, is a completely new plan. These concepts are laid out in three articles:, and They are further elaborated in our proposal for Brown professors to establish a Brown-led AP course series for high school students to (1) Broaden Brown’s brand, (2) reach out to poor but brilliant minority high school students, and (3) form relationships with high school students well before admissions processes begins…and, oh yes, earn an extra $100 million a year for Brown.

    We Brown alums in Northern California have tilted at this windmill for 3 years now. I am stunned at the troglodyte intransigence shown by Christina Paxson, the Board and key administrators to these proposals.

    We are concerned that continuing the current, 19th Century methods of teaching is a formula for failure…and is evidenced by Brown’s comparatively declining reputation, endowment and Brown alum salaries (lower than any other Ivy League school).

    Is Brown finally ready for real change? I doubt it. And I’m sorry to see a fine institution fade into obscurity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *