You would have been forgiven last semester for thinking you had wandered into a never-aired, college-specific episode of Law and Order. Grainy surveillance footage, confrontations with police officers and a 19-hour trial — these were just a few of the scandalous details surrounding a year-long focus on the doings of Brown's most powerful body, the Corporation.
The semester began with a bang, literally, when around 50 students, many of whom were members of the Brown chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, marched with drums and musical instruments around campus to raise awareness about their gripes with the Corporation. At the time, SDS spokesperson and former Herald Staff Writer Sophia Lambertsen '11 told The Herald that Corporation was "a bunch of old white men," and ought to be "democratically student run."
SDS presented four central reforms: open meetings, a community-set agenda, published minutes of all meetings and community referenda on all major decisions. In posters, letters to Corporation members and guest columns and letters to The Herald, SDS articulated these aims with limited response from the Corporation itself.
Not yet gaining much traction, SDS members then attempted to enter the Corporation's fall meeting in University Hall. Armed campus police and senior University officials pushed back. In the ensuing brouhaha, University officials were allegedly injured, and ultimately, eight students were charged with various offenses and faced with the possibility of expulsion. The accusations against the students were based on surveillance footage stills taken from University Hall cameras. During a disciplinary trial, it became clear that, in fact, one of the eight accused had never entered the building during the incident. In the end, seven of the SDS members were put on probation. At the time, Mike Da Cruz '09, one of the eight students charged, told The Herald that the punishment was "a slap on the wrist."
Though SDS had not achieved any of its stated aims by the end of the first semester, its action brought Corporation politics and University governance into the student consciousness.
To understand today's Corporation controversy, it is instructive to examine Brown at the turn of the 20th century. Elisha Benjamin Andrews, class of 1870, was named president of the University in 1889 and was soon a student and faculty favorite. He would go on to transform Brown from a small undergraduate college into a doctoral research university. Despite an impressive agenda and significant support, his relationship with the Corporation doomed his presidency and led the hugely popular leader to resign — twice.
The controversy with the Corporation began when a prominent member, Rep. Joseph Walker, R-Mass., learned of Andrews' views on the gold standard, the most controversial political issue of the day. Andrews was a bimetallist, which meant he was in favor of an economic initiative which supported the free coinage of silver, a view that flew in the face of the Republican Party. As head of the Committee on Banking and Currency, Walker felt personally and professionally threatened by the issue. Another person opposed to bimetallism was John D. Rockefeller, whose son John Jr. was a Brown undergraduate at the time. Rockefeller allegedly threatened to withhold $1 million unless Andrews was made to be quiet.
The Corporation met in the early summer of 1897, without Andrews, who was traveling through Europe in order to recover from an illness. At that end of that meeting, Walker expressed concern that Andrews' views on the issue of the free coinage of silver were a threat not only to Brown's financial stability, but that these views were comparable to supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War.
After expressing high gratitude for Andrews' excellent service to Brown, the Corporation wrote, "the change hoped for is ... not a renunciation of these views but forbearance out of the interest of the university to promulgate them." Andrews felt he was being asked to shut up or ship out and immediately sent in a letter of resignation.
When he heard about the resignation, a student named Professor Jameson (yes, his first name is Professor) wrote angrily to his father about his frustration that the people who "get put on boards of trustees simply because they are rich can dictate to us what we shall say both inside and outside the classroom." Indeed, the faculty was the first to take action. Soon after Andrews' resignation, 24 out of 37 professors wrote an open letter to the Corporation urging them to reconsider.
The letter condemned "the theory that the national growth of a university is more important than independence of thought and expression on the part of its president and professors and that boards of trustees have, as such, the right to suggest limitations on independence."
New England Magazine called it "the most important document of the century." The letter had a mobilizing effect. Soon more letters came in, generally supportive of Andrews, including an endorsement from Senator George Hoar and a letter from alumnus Rathbone Gardner 1877 MA'1880, declaring that alums supported the president for "not concealing his views," even though they ran contrary to Gardner's own.
Walker responded with a letter of his own, which only further demonized his position. The congressman accused Andrews of "eagerly ... seeking the crown of martyrdom and called Andrews' position, "more disastrous than … the right of a state to secede." Ultimately, the Corporation decided to refuse Andrews' resignation.
On the front page of The Herald from September 15, 1897, there are two headlines: "Andrews Resigns" and then next to it, "…He Will Stay." An article about Andrews' first public speech describes students as "jubilant he will stay," and declares that "the applause was deafening." At the end of the academic year, Andrews, still feeling persecuted by the Corporation, resigned again, this time for good.
Ultimately, it was not that Andrews held bimetallist views; it was when he held them. In the economic downturn of the 1890s, Brown was strapped for cash, laying off members of its library staff in 1894, and curbing plans for expansion. With financial necessities at the forefront of the Corporation's agenda, Andrews' economic views suddenly became far more important. That Andrews presided over Brown during an economic crisis, when people across the country and at Brown were struggling to define the role of the university, makes his case especially fascinating in today's environment.
This semester, Chancellor Thomas Tisch announced that the Corporation would be voting on adding a recent alumni position or positions to the Corporation. The young alum will be selected by appointment, said Tisch, not election, and would serve a three-year term. In order to be eligible, alums must have graduated within the last seven years.
In addition, Tisch announced that minutes would be unsealed after 25 years, instead of the current 50-year wait. After the announcement, Da Cruz called the two announcements "tokenization" to The Herald, while former UCS President Brian Becker '09 said it was "incredibly exciting news."
Another former UCS president, Michael Glassman '09, is in many ways the father of the recent alumni position. While UCS president during his junior year, Glassman sat in on meetings with the Corporation's Committee on Campus Life, which is "not where most Corporation stuff happens," according to Glassman. During one meeting, members were discussing Vartan Gregorian Quad and Glassman remembers, "one of the youngest Corporation members, about 20 years out (of Brown), turns to me and whispers, ‘What's that?' I was shocked."
From there, Glassman started a campaign to try to get students or recent alumni to be members of the body. He talked to President Ruth Simmons, who made it clear that trying to get current students on the Corporation would be a losing battle. Glassman resp
onded by taking his mission first to the alumni association and then eventually to the chancellor.
According to Glassman, "Tisch took the idea and understood it in a really fundamental way." While the position will start out as an appointed one, Tisch told Glassman that he hoped the alumni association, which is responsible for the election of a certain number of trustees, will see the Corporation's actions as a compelling reason to work towards having more young alumni trustees.
Whether any of the Corporation's actions will have a significant effect on the University's governance remains to be seen. What does seem likely, if the Andrews controversy is any indication, is that the Corporation will not leave the spotlight any time soon. Indeed, Andrews himself was so fascinated with the Corporation that he joined it three years after his second resignation.