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Andrea Matthews '11: No radicalization without representation

Consider this an open letter to the New York Times. 

For better or worse, I have grown used to both liberal and conservative political commentators making inflammatory and unsubstantiated statements and calling them "news." Though it seems that not enough people are able to make a distinction between reporting and punditry, one would hope that one of the largest newspapers in this country would successfully avoid the overly-editorial, representatively voiced, agenda driven "reporting" conducted by television pundits who shall remain nameless.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. A March 1 article in the New York Times claimed that when news broke that President Ruth Simmons was leaving her position on Goldman Sachs' board, "the Bears — the ones at Brown, not on Wall Street — roared." The article went on to quote (but not cite) "an e-mail message sent among a group of alumni," asking the rather bland question of "Who knew Brown had so much power?"

But the most fearful roaring cited in the article came from my fellow opinions columnist Simon Liebling '12, gleaned from an interview conducted on campus. Liebling's statements to the New York Times were the article's strongest evidence that students and alumni were "buzzing," "roaring" or whatever other aggressive and animalistic reaction the article sought to employ. Liebling was quoted as stating, "Most people agreed with my basic point that this brought shame on the University … It has been taken by most people to be outrageous."

Wait a moment. I do not remember being asked for my opinion. Was there some straw poll on the Main Green that I missed? A campus-wide e-mail survey that I carelessly deleted? Who granted any one undergraduate the ability to make statements about the thoughts and feelings of the Brown community at large?

The decision to quote Liebling as an authoritative voice on Brown students' feelings toward Goldman Sachs and Simmons was deeply irresponsible. This problem of representative interviewing is hardly new. It is not uncommon for reporters and journalists to seek out "representative" voices for groups. They expect individual observations and opinions to be able to account for the aggregate experiences of entire groups, whether as small as Brown's undergraduate population or as significant as, for example, all black citizens in the United States.

The articulation of those examples may seem absurd in print, but every time the "token black/Latino/female/insert minority descriptor here" commentator is toted in the news as an authoritative voice for his or her group, the media propagates the idea that individuals who can be categorized by certain traits must think and feel the same way.

The Brown undergraduate population is not a homogenous group unified under a single political, social or ideological agenda. This will disappoint pundits on the left and the right who would seek to stereotype Brown students as a hippie-dominated, granola munching, uber-liberal flock. But Brown University is a place where, as Simmons has stated, "We encourage ideas and opinions to collide in the service of learning."

In fact, the students to whom I have spoken about Simmons' affiliation with Goldman have been ambivalent or mildly approving. Does this give me a legitimate claim to knowledge about the feelings of the entire Brown community? Absolutely not.

In referencing these contrary opinions, I am not making a statement as to how the majority of Brown students perceive Simmons' former position on the board of Goldman Sachs. I could not make any credible declaration if I tried. This is because one cannot reach empirical conclusions without verifiable data. To claim that I know what a majority of Brown students think or feel would be an illegitimate thing for me to do without a defensible survey of the undergraduate population. Yet this is exactly what Liebling — prompted and primped by the New York Times — did. 

Given that the Times article was published on March 1, all of this discussion seems rather irrelevant by now. But that article, and its uninformed and single-sided portrayal of Brown students, has continued to circulate in the blogosphere for weeks. Like it or not, people are talking about it, and as they do, they're popularizing an overly simplified and unsubstantiated portrayal of the views of students at this University.

I do not write this column to make a substantive assertion about Brown students' opinions. What I do assert is that anyone who makes such claims should think twice before making any statement that presupposes representative legitimacy, and give full credit to the diversity of thought that exists on this campus.

Andrea Matthews '11 does, however, compliment reporter Graham Bowley on his very punny usage of the word "bears" in his otherwise irresponsible article. 


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