We're back at Brown! Another year passed, another anticipated yet somehow still jarring transition from the indolent laze of summer to the purposeful buzz of academia. It's been four long months. So long, in fact, that I even missed the Ratty! I suppose a summer of shopping and cooking and cleaning can open one's eyes to its hidden beauty.
And to the first-years, welcome! I'm sure there will be plenty of columnists and returning students who will trip over themselves to be helpful in the process of getting you acquainted with your new home. I would like to put in my two cents and urge you to get involved in running that home.
I'm sure most of you are acquainted with Brown's legendary commitment to academic self-determination. Many of you no doubt specifically chose Brown over some of our less enlightened peers primarily because of that freedom.
This self-determination does not end with the ability to take whichever classes interest you, however. Most every aspect of the University's governance is open and responsive to student input and influence in a way that would be unthinkable elsewhere.
Sure, final decision-making authority in many areas lies with the ominously named "Corporation," which, for the most part, elects its own members and, unhelpfully, meets in secret and seals its minutes for 50 years. But its members are wealthy donors and famous alumni who clearly have better things to do than second guess administrators' suggestions. Many of the official policy and budgetary recommendations that the Corporation takes up are actually developed and expounded in committees composed of administrators, faculty members and students.
For example, Brown's $800 million budget is written primarily by the University Resources Committee. Out of 15 voting members on the URC, two are students, and their voices are respected and taken into account.
Moreover, administrators and faculty typically go out of their way to solicit student input on those decisions that are not made by specialized committees. Members of the Undergraduate Council of Students frequently meet with administrators as high up as President Simmons herself. I can say from my own two-year experience as a member of UCS and former Chairman of the Academic and Administrative Affairs Committee that they take the student input seriously.
Some of you may be jaded from negative experiences with student government in high school, whose raison d'etre seems to be raising funds and organizing pep assemblies. Worse, the strictly regimented and regulated nature of most high schools means that even sympathetic administrators can rarely act on students' desires.
While Brown's student government is no Congress and cannot pass binding laws, it has a level of autonomy and a degree of respectability that is inconceivable in a high school student assembly. This is not merely a result of benevolent administrators taking our thoughts into account. For example, rather than being obligated to raise funds, the Undergraduate Finance Board generally has about a million dollars annually to allocate to various activities. (I serve on the UFB, which is composed entirely of students).
But — and now I have to break out the cliche — you must get involved. The continued relevance of student opinion to the functioning of the University depends upon the continued commitment of students to serving on the student government, and to ascertaining, articulating and advocating that opinion.
Joining the Undergraduate Council of Students is not difficult at all. Becoming a voting member requires 150 signatures, and the Council asks of prospective members only their active participation in committee and its weekly meetings. It's worth checking out.
Now I don't want to exaggerate the impact the Council might have. You probably won't be moving any mountains or revolutionizing the curriculum like some sort of modern day Ira Magaziner '69 P'06 P'07 P'10. But that is more because of Brown students' contentment with the New Curriculum and the general state of affairs (according to the Princeton Review, after all, we do have the happiest students) than because of an inability to effect change.
When I was a first-year, I was inundated with all sorts of advice. It seems like everyone has a favorite suggestion for the newcomers on campus. I will leave it to others to impart all of these little tidbits, but if nothing else I hope the first-years pick up on Brown's message to them, and to all of its students: take charge of your education. Get involved.
Tyler Rosenbaum '11 is an international relations concentrator from Seattle. He can be reached at tyler(at)brown.edu