In October of 1975, amid cuts to the faculty and financial aid, then-President Donald Hornig sat down with the Herald for an hour, his typical method for releasing information to the community.
Discussing the administration's plans for managing the fiscal crisis, Hornig said administrators were trying to improve communication with students but admitted he had not improved the trickling flow of information.
"We probably could have explained a little better as we were going along," he said. "It is easy to say that communication was a problem."
His comments highlight the importance of communication at a university dealing with financial problems, as Brown is today.
In October 2008, as the global economic crisis began to take its toll on the University, President Ruth Simmons sent an e-mail containing remarks she had made at a faculty meeting with the "intention of making that statement available to the entire community."
As economic conditions worsened, Simmons sent similar campus-wide messages with updates on the status of the endowment, faculty hiring and financial aid packages.
Simmons and other administrators want "to be upfront without a lot of editorializing, without a lot of flowery language," Vice President of Public Affairs and University Relations Marisa Quinn said.
Challenges, struggles and uncertainty
Experts of linguistic anthropology divide the meaning of language into two categories — the referential and the indexical. The referential meaning is the dictionary definition, while the indexical links a word to its social effects.
Press releases and official statements are "cast as an act by which referential information is being conveyed," said Paja Faudree '92, an assistant professor of anthropology who specializes in linguistic anthropology.
But by saying certain words, administrators are able to accomplish both goals. They simultaneously inform and reassure the community.
Though she has not heard much "identifiably euphemistic language," Faudree said she has noticed another trend. Communications have been filled with words like "challenging," "downturn" and "economic difficulty" — vague terms that avoid more technical language, she said.
In her e-mails, Simmons repeatedly refers to the "uncertainty" the University is facing, and the "apparent" and "anticipated" effects of the economy on Brown.
Calling a situation "uncertain" or "challenging" decenters the blame, Faudree said.
Naming the University's struggles a "challenge" implies that Brown is actively fighting a poor external climate. The word "neutralizes the negative," she said.
"It puts a positive spin on the endeavor we're in," Faudree said.
"Uncertainty" also implies that the University had some foresight of the disaster and had prepared for its possibility, Faudree added. "It attempts to purchase them the license to do what they need to do."
But it is hard to know what "uncertainty" means concretely. Specific information like endowment figures is presented in certain instances, but without being placed in a broader context, it is not necessarily "meaningful in the form they're giving it," Faudree said.
A constant theme in University-wide communications has been to "protect" and "preserve," words that allow the University to justify actions taken in the name of Brown's mission, Faudree said.
"For a while, there was a delicate dance around ‘recession,' an awareness that you couldn't say it," she said.
Comparing Brown to its peer institutions
As the stock market plummeted record amounts in one day in 1987, University officials addressed concerns about Brown's endowment with similar comments about difficulties and challenges, asserting that the exact impact "wouldn't be known for some time."
University officials made clear at the time that Brown "weathered the storm well" in comparison to its peer institutions.
Communications from the University today contain a similar sentiment, saying that Brown's finances are relatively secure within the "landscape of higher education."
Though the phrase lacks specificity, it is a rhetorical yardstick, Faudree said. All schools work to assert that their downfall is less severe than others.
"Positioning for superiority and relative excellence holds even for how you weather a crisis," she said.
Despite his closed-lip nature, Hornig assured The Herald in November of 1975 that "information is more available here than at comparable institutions."
Still, he precluded nearly all student involvement in decision-making. Though he held open forums — attended by over 500 members of the community — he informed students at the forums he had no intention of engaging in a public debate.
Engaging the community
Throughout her messages, Simmons employs words like "community" and uses third-person pronouns to construct a sense of collaboration.
Her usage of "I" is reserved for very pointed reasons, emphasizing that "it's not about her as an individual," Faudree said.
Messages are intended to inform members of the community as to how the University is doing, when they can expect more information and how they can weigh in, Quinn said.
Though Quinn acknowledged that there could always be a debate about what information is sent out and what isn't, "if there are implications generally for the community, it's important to share those."
In this year of upheaval, Quinn said it was crucial to show that the University was aware of the crisis, and had formulated a "plan for the uncertainties it presents."
Officials are trying to reassure without being too forthcoming, Faudree said — "a difficult rhetorical task."