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Columns, Opinions

Ruzicka ’21: To Brown administrators: Don’t silence student voices

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, April 9, 2020

About two and a half years ago, I arrived at Brown as a first-year, flush with pride and new hope. Pride because I had heard from multiple people — my older sister who preceded me at Brown, my interviewer before I was admitted, my tour guide on campus and others — that Brown was not only an academically prestigious university but also one rooted in respect for input from the student body. My new hope formed when I stepped onto campus with a ballooning sense that maybe I could make an impact on College Hill, just like the incredible young people who had come before me.

During the course of the last month, those hopes and pride have been squelched by the actions of the University administration. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I expected Dean of the College Rashid Zia, President Christina Paxson P’19 and other appointed leaders at Brown to respond with overflowing support, empathy and understanding for all students’ needs; however, what I have seen instead is a dismissal of students’ efforts to communicate about and influence University policies. I write out of a concern for the very foundation on which Brown has been built, one of compassion and openness, which I now believe is a pile of rubble.

To recontextualize and revive this foundation: a history lesson. Student protests began almost as soon as the University was founded in 1764, when in 1773 the senior class wrote a letter to the president to ensure they were afforded a public Commencement. The first known petition for a cause at Brown was signed by students in 1788, when they wrote to the administration asking that all graduates be given a place to sit onstage for Commencement like their predecessors, instead of favoring seats for members of the Corporation. In 1833, the sophomore class protested the assignment of Commencement parts (where students perform different roles in the ceremony based on merit and prestige), arguing that it fostered competition and rivalry instead of camaraderie. Twenty-one members of the graduating class of 1835 — the same class that signed the petition — refused to accept their diplomas on this principle.

On a wider scale, Brown’s academic system was radically changed on May 8, 1969, when, after nearly a year of research and advocacy, the Brown faculty heeded students’ calls for an open curriculum, with all the other policies that accompany it. This movement to a new philosophy of education was prompted by a group of just 20 students who began a petition that was eventually signed by more than half of the undergraduate student body. Brown University’s unique academic system — the one that has drawn prospective students, researchers and faculty for more than 50 years — was only made possible because student opinions were taken seriously and the University administration treated students as knowledgeable stakeholders in their education.

In contrast, the current administration has entirely discarded a student petition that promotes Universal Pass, which has more than 2,900 signatures. Zia justified this decision by writing that he found the stories of students who emailed him against Universal Pass “most compelling,” in an email to the Brown community March 30, 2020. Though qualitative testimonies are important to any cause, to ignore a petition of this scale, which includes support from both students and faculty and provides quantitative evidence of the wants of the community, is absurd and contrary to the spirit of Brown University.

President Paxson has demonstrated similar callousness, going so far as to tell a student in an email on March 30, 2020 reviewed by The Herald and later posted to Facebook that “debates about whether S/NC should be optional or mandatory feel very disconnected from the current reality.” It may be true that grading options and other academic policies are not at the forefront of President Paxson’s mind, but disregarding a student plea with such insensitivity is unwarranted and unacceptable. In truth, academic policy decisions are our current reality as students. They determine not only our active levels of anxiety but also our success going forward this semester.

In the time since both of these emails were distributed, there have been minimal concessions from the administration. The grade option change period will now be April 13 to May 1, 2020, according to an email from Zia on April 3. That same email declared that “no student’s academic standing will be adversely affected by their coursework this Spring.” This statement contained no link to a more detailed policy and leaves many questions in students’ minds. It is a far cry from the commitment to “transparency” that President Paxson described in her email on April 6, 2020.

Students are the lifeblood of this University. Without us, Brown cannot operate. Although we are not physically together at this time, I hope that the University administration knows that, if not for the risk of gathering in groups, I and others of the Brown community would be at University Hall, demanding empathy and answers. As President Paxson stated in her email on March 17, 2020, Brown “need[s our] innovative sensibilities” in order to weather this difficult period in history; however, those sensibilities cannot be cherry-picked and then thrown by the wayside on a whim.

I am not here to advocate for one policy or another (though my opinions on grading and reading period stand). Rather, I argue that the actions of the University administration in the last month are in direct conflict with Brown’s historical commitment to student inclusion. They have treated us students as if we are a mass to be tamed and appeased, as opposed to rational adults who are advocating for a voice in our own education and future. Such dismissal is an insult to our agency, and will not stand.

Emilia Ruzicka ’21 can be reached at emilia_ruzicka@brown.edu.  Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com

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