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Columns, Opinions

Pipatjarasgit ’21: Understanding and keeping advancement accountable

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 10, 2021

When students found out about the now infamous “Granoff Dinner,” they were outraged. To be fair, there were also some published opinions defending the events, but most students will likely recall an overwhelmingly negative reaction when the story broke in spring 2019. Two years later, how many students actually reflect on this event anymore? And since then, have we learned anything more about the Office of Advancement? 

The reality is that the Office of Advancement remains as opaque an entity as it was the day the “Granoff Dinner” story broke. It maintains two offices in Providence: The fifth and sixth floors of South Street Landing are its headquarters, while Maddock Alumni Center is home to Alumni Relations. Less known is that the Office of Advancement has satellite offices in New York and San Francisco. They are not directly acknowledged on any of Brown’s public communications and web pages; the only record of them lives in old job postings and by searching the office addresses in the University’s official map maintained by the Department of Facilities Management (500 5th Avenue in New York City and 601 Montgomery Street in San Francisco).

While the Advancement website includes contact information for the Advancement Leadership Team as well as for specific areas in the office, there is no full and publicly available staff directory of Brown’s Office of Advancement. This stands in contrast to the many other units at Brown that include full staff lists on their websites, such as Human Resources or the College. The public list of six senior administrators in Advancement obscures the reality that, from a recent count, there are at least 200 individual employees under the Office of Advancement.

Development, fundraising, capital campaigns and long-term institutional stability are all reasons why successful nonprofit organizations must have some sort of advancement office. I understand that growing the endowment has been a priority of President Christina Paxson P’19; Brown indeed has the smallest endowment of the eight institutions in the Ivy League, and a larger endowment theoretically makes the University better positioned to support its students. But I fail to see why Advancement’s work must be secretive, especially in light of the many different scandals the office has found itself at the center of over the past few years.

Despite claiming to have discontinued the practice, Herald reporting from 2019 suggests that the Office of Advancement has asked faculty members to meet with certain prospective students and provide a note to be included in their admission file as recently as spring 2018. Faculty who spoke with The Herald felt that these students were being given this privilege because of their connections to the Corporation or “prospect for future fundraising.” Advancement had also provided an alumni benefit called the Alumni College Advising Program, which had allowed Brown alumni to seek up to three hours of free, professional college counseling from the Office of Advancement for each of their children, before the program was quietly discontinued in summer 2019. While there were no fewer than four published opinions in the Herald on legacy admission back in 2018 and 2019, pleading the Brown community to not “let the discussion of legacy admission die,” as well as the student-led #FullDisclosure campaign, whose accompanying referendum was favored by 81 percent of the undergraduate student body, discourse on legacy admission has dwindled recently. As far as I can tell, the use of legacy status in admissions is still in place, giving prospective students a direct edge in the admissions process. The same Herald reporting from 2019 suggests that the Office of Advancement is involved, including alumni and children of alumni in their campus visit program, with no further reassurances from the University that this is not the case.

The University has said very little about Advancement’s practices. The Granoff dinners have not really received a full, categorical denial, with Paxson instead claiming that the journalists who broke the story had included “no data or facts” while simultaneously crediting the students for bringing the matter to her attention. After the so-called Varsity Blues admission scandal, which did directly not touch Brown, Paxson created the Ad Hoc Committee on Equity and Access to review “the integrity of the admissions process, particularly around athletics recruitment” (my emphasis). It is excellent that the University was proactive in ensuring integrity in this regard, but notably absent from this announcement was any discussion of reviewing the Office of Advancement specifically and its alleged substantive involvement in the undergraduate admission process.

These issues have managed to pass by unresolved. The memories may remain with students, but even so, this only lasts until the undergraduate student community is completely renewed every five years. Students have long served as a check and a balance against the University, from the 1987 South African divestment to the reinstatement of some varsity athletic teams that had been cut in May 2020. But if we are to confront large structural issues within the institution, we cannot make change  without institutional memory.

The Office of Advancement is clearly a powerful force at Brown, and its questionable practices and reticence to change should worry all members of the Brown community. I warn my fellow students to not be complacent. This University, and the Office of Advancement in particular, has shown time and time again that it is comfortable eroding equity and fairness in the institution by potentially compromising the integrity of the Brown community. Could the Undergraduate Council of Students create a UCS Historian position? Are there other efforts we could take to strengthen our collective memory? The Office of Advancement has come under public scrutiny, but any memory of this seems to have disappeared. We need a way to remember history, its scandals, its stories and when applicable, the ways that substantive (or insufficiently substantive) changes were made to address problematic practices. Otherwise, we may see history repeat itself.

Poom Andrew Pipatjarasgit ’21 can be reached at poom_pipatjarasgit@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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