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Park '12: Liberal Learning is under attack

Much like a cancer, the University's growths, initiated in the name of profit and prestige, threaten its health.

Before, I've called this the logic driving the corporatization of our university, but today I'm going to call it the logic of the attack on liberal learning.

Changes Brown has recently undergone have physically harmed the lives of members of our community — cancerous, in some cases, to the point of the surgical removal that the University called organizational restructuring and everyone else called layoffs.

The layoffs of 2008-2010 occurred for one reason — because risky endowment investments were made to compete with peer schools. The University was able to grow, and when risks came home to roost, cuts came at the expense of our staff's livelihoods.

This cancer has overrun and corrupted our most fundamental principle: the liberal learning that underlies our open curriculum. This principle would seem to espouse the equality and importance of diverse disciplines operating in academic freedom.

Pure and simple, the search for profit and prestige has increasingly guided Brown's decision-making since the Plan for Academic Enrichment. That plan and the campaign that funded it have operated along lines at direct odds with liberal learning.

In the life and physical sciences, as well as at Alpert Medical School, these plans meant growth. Faculty was one of the central areas of growth outlined by the PAE. Of all segments of the faculty, the life and medical sciences have grown the most since the spurts began, by 26.9 percent, with physical sciences second at 18.2 percent, followed by social sciences at a 15.8 percent and humanities at a paltry 8.1 percent. Nonetheless, the humanities still have the greatest number of professors all told — 200 — while the physical sciences have but 12 fewer.

The humanities' size can be understood by the fact that they incorporate the most departments, programs and centers by far, with 25. The humanities departments average eight faculty each, while the social sciences have slightly more than nine each, the life and medical sciences have more than 19 each and the physical sciences have more than 23. The largest areas of the University have continued to get larger, and have disproportionately benefited from investments.

The areas of greatest growth generate the most revenue — those which, balance would tell us, shouldn't need disproportionate support. But expanded research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics translates to greater federal and corporate grants, and with those come profit margins with which increases in the number of tuition-paying undergraduates can't compete.

Expanded research demands new and bigger facilities, and the single area of greatest expansion — the life and medical sciences — proves it. Ninety-five-million dollars were invested into the Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences, and $45 million into the Medical Education Building in the Jewelry District.

This reorientation of the University's priorities has become a threat to those who don't directly aid in achieving efficient growth. The restructuring the University underwent in 2009-2010 can serve as a model to understand how the University interprets the efficiency it covets.

Despite the fact that the PAE's second phase, which came in 2008, recommended staff increases to accommodate faculty increases, more than 200 staff were lost last year alone, including 66 lost to layoffs. This could only be justified in terms of monetary efficiency, for while staff are necessary, they are not profitable and rarely prestigious.

In the case of Brown graduate students, whose numbers have grown by 14 percent since May 2008, the cancerous nature of this growth can be understood best in the new pilot project called "Dissertation Completion Funding." On paper, without context, these funds appear to be a boon — they create a standardized application process to access University funds for sixth year doctoral work, awarding money months earlier than in years past.

The pretty package disguises major concerns. To begin with, only graduate students in the humanities and social sciences apply. All graduate students in the profitable sciences receive their funding from external grants.

While money is now being centralized in the graduate school in the name of efficiency, these funds are now budgeted in advance of any calculation of need. In order to calculate merit, a new system has been established to rank graduate students against departmental colleagues, and departments against other departments.

Creating a centralized internal ranking system does nothing but establish the sort of competition that is fundamentally inimical to academic freedom. You'd think that the school that prides itself on the right of its undergraduates to take any course Satisfactory/No Credit would understand that.

Where the University doesn't directly profit, it's after prestige. The new policy restricts graduate student funding towards the recruitment of more competitive applicants. The Dean of the Graduate School, Peter Weber, has confided to graduate students that there isn't less money — more money had just been put towards graduate students' first five years.

No graduate student would knowingly choose higher salaries and more summer funding over a guaranteed sixth year of funding. But more money up front looks better, boosts the number of applicants and, consequentially, our graduate school rankings, our prestige and our profit.

Julian Park '12 would rather see Brown drop in ranking than sacrifice its values. Contact him at julianfrancispark@gmail.com.


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