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Simon Liebling '12: Brown, Inc. and the death of the university-college

"Brown University," our president once wrote, "occupies a unique educational position. It is set apart from all but a very small group of institutions by the fact that it is a university college." Unlike so many similar institutions, it had avoided the tempting, easy fallacy "that ‘bigger' and ‘better' were synonymous." "Against the tendency to allow the liberal arts to occupy a secondary position," our president argued, "Brown has been almost uniquely emphatic."

Such a stirring defense of undergraduate education and Brown's distinctive identity against homogenizing pressures from without — surely the stuff of 78 percent approval ratings and BET awards, no? Sadly, this president would never know the joy of gracing the T-shirts of adoring students with his caricature. His name was Henry Wriston, and the year was 1946.

Sixty-five years later, the "unique educational position" that drew Wriston and generations of independently-minded students to Brown is nowhere in evidence. No longer do Brown's administrators advertise the university-college as a selling point. Our longstanding, treasured identity becomes, as The Herald reported in April, "scarcer and scarcer in the University's promotional materials."

Instead, the language out of University Hall has changed to glorify the sort of institutional assimilation that Wriston was once so proud to avoid. News out of the latest Corporation meeting, dutifully vetted by President Simmons, speaks of "our goals as an international research university." Despite Wriston's warning that pre-professional education was "fundamentally incompatible with the University's major obligation," the University pours money into its medical school while establishing a school of engineering and an offshore MBA program in Spain. The administration's new priorities have so obscured any remaining institutional commitment to our core philosophy that some students have taken to the pages of the Herald to clamor for what would be a stake through the heart of the university-college — the Brown, Inc. Business School ("Toward the Brown School of Business," Sept. 29).

Behind the rush to abandon Brown's uniqueness for the prestige of the pre-professional research university is the consuming competitiveness that is the essence of Brown, Inc. and the corporatized academy. Obsessed with measuring itself against "peer institutions," Brown's administration is no longer content to provide a fundamentally different educational experience that defies comparison. The competition for rankings and global renown demands that it ditch the university-college to emulate its rivals and try to beat them at their own game.

The goal — to transform Brown into Harvard South — gets more transparent every year. "The University has acted on its ambitions to become one of the best in the world and an equal competitor with institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford," reported The Herald, quoting Provost David Kertzer '69 P'95 P'98 as he acknowledges Brown's aspiration to be "one of the world's great universities." President Simmons, for her part, acknowledges a decision made early in her tenure to compete with other elite research universities.

Inevitably, Brown, Inc. will create a student body in its own image, and the same students who call for a business school share the administration's envious competitiveness. They base their arguments on the fact that "many of Brown's peers — including Harvard, the University of Chicago, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — have powerful, established business schools." Any institutional diversity is but an afterthought; Brown's character and culture are nothing but handicaps in the rankings game. We exist, it seems, not to differentiate ourselves but to compete, and competition demands that we try to be exactly like everyone else.

Once upon a time, students applied to Brown for what Brown alone could provide: a liberal arts college with the resources and research opportunities of an Ivy League university. But as Brown transforms itself into a dime-a-dozen research university, it will attract students who are happy to treat it like one.

Those students have so little to gain from making Brown into Harvard, Chicago, Stanford or MIT; there are hundreds of schools where they can already find exactly the kind of pre-professional research university they wish they attended. But for those of us who were drawn to Brown by the same educational philosophy they want to replace, the death of the university-college leaves us without any adequate substitutes.

The university-college is a scarce and endangered educational resource. Research universities are invasive and overabundant. But the siren call of prestige drowns out identity, tradition and pride. That pride needs to be reasserted by those of us who came to Brown for the ways it was different from its competitors, for the educational niche filled by it alone. We are not so consumed by rankings that we would mimic our neighbors at the cost of our culture.

We defend Brown, the university-college, against Brown, Inc. — Harvard's safety school.

 

Simon Liebling '12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at simon.liebling@gmail.com




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