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Henriques '12: A university-college, if you can keep it

It's said that a woman approached Benjamin Franklin at the close of the Constitutional Convention and asked him whether the government he and his compatriots had just founded was to be a monarchy or a republic. "A republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it."

Franklin's cautionary words emphasize that democracy is not a one-way street: Institutions that allow for participation depend, for their effectiveness, on people actually participating. If those in power begin to shirk their responsibility to the people in whose interests they govern, it is as much our fault for letting them get away with it as it is theirs for doing so. Citizenship, as we all learned in our civics classes, carries with it not just rights, but responsibilities.

As it is in our national community, so too is it in our campus community, which is why the paltry attendance at a recent open undergraduate forum to solicit opinions on our next president was alarming. As reported in The Herald, though the event was optimistically booked in Salomon 001, only about 15 people turned out to speak with members of the Presidential Search Committee of the Corporation and the Campus Advisory Committee. If you disregard the members of the Undergraduate Council of Students in the audience — a group that surely has no dearth of opportunity to have their voices heard about the problems facing Brown — the number of new voices brought into the conversation at last week's forum is even smaller.

The low turnout was especially disappointing because the conversation was a surprisingly fruitful one. After affirming the importance of community input by noting that Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim '82 was originally nominated through a similar forum, Chancellor Thomas Tisch '76 and the other committee members in attendance engaged in a substantial back-and-forth with students about the personal characteristics they would like to see in the next president, as well as their broader hopes for Brown's future.

The issue of how to properly balance the University's research and teaching, for example, was a major focus of the discussion. Though panel members pushed back some against students' concerns, they were nonetheless receptive to fears that undergraduates might become increasingly marginalized.

It is not that students are indifferent about such campus issues. These very opinion pages bristle constantly with criticisms of everything from Brown's residential facilities to its advising to its military involvement to its investments. More informally, we have all had conversations in which we or our impassioned friends have raged against a professor who seems more concerned with getting his or her name in print than interacting with undergraduates. We have fumed at the injustice of the University's labor practices and complained that the concerns of our favorite identity group are given too short shrift.

Now and then, we can even be enticed to share our opinions directly with the powers that be. It helps if the avenue for complaint is trendy enough — 30 people turned out to set up tents and post a Martin Luther-style list of demands at Occupy College Hill last month. It also helps to have resume-padding potential — 55 students filled out an impressively thorough application in hopes of attaining one of two undergraduate spots on the Campus Advisory Committee. Sitting in the basement of Salomon on a Wednesday afternoon certainly offers less cachet, and no one is going to give you a pat on the back for your participation. But unglamorous as it may be, it is nonetheless a meaningful way to demonstrate our passion for our school and take part in shaping its future.

We are understandably wary of a University run by a Corporation that seems distant and removed from student interests. And the seriously disproportionate representation of science faculty at the expense of those from the humanities on the Campus Advisory Committee is cause for concern that important voices are not being heard in this year's presidential search. Students feel — and rightly so — that because we are stakeholders in this University, the institution ought to be responsive to our needs. But to complain of a University run by forces outside our control, while at the same time failing to take advantage of existing opportunities to influence University decision-making, is disingenuous. The blame for abdication of duty lies at our doorstep, not Brown's.

Unfortunately, the undergraduate open forum last week was, according to the presidential search website, the only one scheduled so far. I hope the committee will arrange more as the presidential search process continues, and if they do, I implore students to take an hour out of their day to participate in these important conversations about what Brown is and should be.

Until then, the Presidential Search Committee of the Corporation and the Campus Advisory Committee are accepting comments via email at president_search@brown.edu. Committee members have demonstrated an eagerness to listen to our perspective as current students. We owe it to the next generation of Brunonians to take 10 minutes — or 20 or 30 — to sit down, write an email and share our thoughts about our next president. After all, the university-college is ours. If we can keep it.

Reuben Henriques '12 hopes that the search committee's taking candidate suggestions by email means that we might have a dethroned Nigerian prince as our next president. He can be reached at reuben_henriques@brown.edu.


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