Brown began assigning summer reading three summers ago at the behest of Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron. All incoming first-years read the same book, "How Proust Can Change Your Life," and wrote letters to their advisers discussing the book and their academic goals at Brown. Freshmen and their advisers had every right to believe these letters were private correspondence. In reality, the letters were screened, without the students' knowledge or consent, in order to identify the least proficient writers in the class and encourage them to improve their writing.
The way in which the University went about evaluating first-years' writing was dishonest and counterproductive. A discussion of academic goals — the subject of the letters — might naturally have included sensitive details (about upbringing, learning disabilities or academic background, for example) that students might have omitted had they known about the extra set of readers. As a result, we expect that many students will be less forthcoming with their advisers this year, and with good reason.
The University's decision to inform freshmen about the screening process starting with the class of 2013 strikes us as too little, too late. Bergeron owes the student body an apology and a credible promise that student privacy will be respected in the future. If administrators hope to earn back students' trust, they should answer the following questions: First, has the University recently intercepted other undergraduate communications without notice or prior warning? Second, under what circumstances are University employees allowed to look at student correspondence? Third, how will Brown hold its employees accountable for divulging a student's confidential information without her permission?
Answering these questions is crucial to restoring not only first-year faith in the advising system, but also the student body's belief in the administration's commitment to their welfare. Spying on someone's private correspondence is profoundly intrusive and cannot be justified by the need to improve his writing skills.
While Bergeron's tactics were inexcusable, her goal was worthwhile. The writing requirement is, to some extent, at odds with the New Curriculum: The latter is compromised when students are compelled to take writing classes and the former is unenforceable for those students who use the New Curriculum to avoid any course with a written component. Evaluating first-year writing samples is a novel solution to both problems. It ensures that unpracticed writers from all departments receive feedback and also advises students on how to improve their writing before remedial classes become the only option.
But dishonesty impeded the program's effectiveness. The policy — assign a book that many students aren't interested in reading, add in an essay requirement and remove any predictable consequences for slacking off — was a perfect recipe for sloppy, unrepresentative samples. And indeed, Associate Dean for Writing Kathleen McSharry confirmed that the essays improved after the University disclosed its true intentions.
We hope that the fallout from Brown's covert letter-screening program will serve as a potent reminder that honesty is usually the best policy, and that Brown students should be consulted about important curricular changes, even those that seem like self-evidently good ideas.
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