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Campus reacts to strategic plan

Both students and administrators expressed mixed feelings about the plan’s proposals

Students offered mixed reactions to President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan — a draft of which was released to the community Wednesday — with many praising certain elements but some voicing concerns that the plan lacked ambition.

The plan, titled “Building on Distinction,” identifies seven interdisciplinary areas of “integrative scholarship” on which the University will focus: the creative arts, brain sciences, environmental sustainability, social justice, the humanities, technological innovation and population health.

Such focuses are “perfectly in sync with the Brown culture of interdisciplinary scholarship,” said Larry Larson, dean of the School of Engineering. “Part of being a great a research university is having a great research environment for our faculty to do great research.”

Though she had not read the report, Miriam Langmoen ’17 expressed support for the inclusion of the creative arts as one of the major focus areas. “There’s obviously a wish among students to do performing arts,” Langmoen said, citing the high ratio of a cappella groups to students on campus.

The report specifically identifies the goal of improving space for the creative and performing arts, a move that Daniel Ramirez Montero ’16, who also had not read the plan, said he supports.

“The orchestra performs in Sayles, but the acoustics there are not the best,” he said.

Though she also had not read the plan, Solveig Xia ’17 said she likes the proposal to develop new technologies. “Technology definitely is a field that is creating a new paradigm of how we’re learning and teaching,” Xia said.

Beyond the seven areas of integrative scholarship, the report also identifies graduate studies as an area that needs significantly more support and suggests expanding career services for graduate students and developing a merit-based stipend system for high-performing students.

Though he said he has not yet reviewed the plan in detail, Graduate Student Council Secretary John Mulligan GS wrote in an email to The Herald that this merit-based system stood out to him at first glance.

“There is an emphasis on rewarding perceived excellence over increasing broad-based support, which is potentially incongruous with the sense of intellectual community this University is known for,” Mulligan wrote.

The Building on Distinction plan also describes a commitment to new teaching strategies and programs in the Brown undergraduate curriculum, a focus Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron called “a very good sign for the future.” Bergeron chaired the Committee on Educational Innovation, one of six committees whose interim reports and research helped develop the strategic plan.

Among the changes proposed is revamping courses in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM fields, and making them more hands-on, particularly at the introductory level. Though he had not read the plan, Eric Han ’16 said he appreciates this initiative, as many of his friends found their introductory math courses difficult.

Marguerite Joutz ’15, a leader of the Brown Conversation, a group that aims to promote dialogue about Brown and the Open Curriculum, said she supports the proposal to prioritize STEM education.

“There could be a lot more resources for first-year students coming into Brown who don’t have a strong background coming into STEM but are nevertheless passionate about STEM,” she said.

The University will also launch a Laboratory for Educational Innovation through the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning to explore new methods of pedagogy and determine which forms are most effective.

While it is important to devote resources to educational innovation, doing so is “not radically going to change the face of campus,” Joutz said. “But it could incrementally change the way professors teach here, or even the conversation about teaching on campus.”

The report also suggests creating sophomore seminars focused on diversity, an idea Ramirez Montero said he finds exciting. As a sophomore, he said taking classes with juniors and seniors can feel “a little bit intimidating.”

Right now, “there are a lot of cool classes for first-years, and a lot for juniors and seniors. The classes for sophomores are the lamest ones,” he said.

Reaffirming a long-standing goal of Paxson’s, the plan emphasizes the importance of global education, which Daniel Chiou ’16 said he appreciates. “The world is becoming more world-oriented, and we should become more world-oriented,” Chiou said.

The report includes plans to develop “Brown in the World” courses, which would allow students to pursue independent learning experiences away from College Hill. Chiou said he is hesitant about these courses, adding that he would personally find it difficult to learn the skills needed for a global project while on the job.

The report also reaffirms the University’s commitment to collaborating with the city and state. Laurie White, president of the Providence Chamber of Commerce, said she is pleased by the University’s goal of continuing to working with the city and particularly excited about the emphasis on expanding neuroscience research.

But some students said they were disappointed by the plan on a broad level, calling the proposals incremental and not innovative.

“It just seemed like a march ahead as opposed to a new chapter in Brown’s narrative,” Joutz said, adding that many other members of the Brown Conversation shared her viewpoint. “Someone texted me the hashtag ‘unimpressed.’”

Brown for Financial Aid President Alex Mechanick ’15 said he was struck by the “lack of any substantive commitment” to increasing financial aid, calling it “an incredible dereliction of duty.” The report suggests the University “work toward Brown’s long-standing goal of becoming fully need-blind” but does not propose a specific timeline.

The strategic plan also calls for annually re-evaluating the financial situations of international students, a move Mechanick called “a no-brainer.”

Langmoen and Xia, both Norwegian international students, said they supported the move.

As a Norwegian international student, Langmoen said she receives financial support from the Norwegian government, though support is mostly in the form of loans. While parents in the United States often save up money to send their children to college, it is “not normal” for families in Norway to do the same, Xia added.

Mechanick said he is disappointed the University did not identify financial aid as one of the major components of the strategic plan, adding that Brown is squandering an opportunity by not making a strong commitment in advance of the capital campaign designed to raise funds to implement the plan. Making such a commitment now would result in “an incredibly effusive outpouring of support” from alums, Mechanick said.

Though the plan calls for an expansion of summer support for students, it does not commit to a reduction of the summer earnings expectation, a change that Brown for Financial Aid has been advocating since January.

“Plans usually commit to action,” Mechanik said. “As a strategic plan, it’s not very strategic, and it’s not much of a plan.”

But Joutz said she was not surprised by the report’s treatment of financial aid.

“It’s quite clear that Brown simply does not have the financial resources to support complete need-blind admissions without making some serious sacrifices,” she said. “That’s something Paxson wants to accomplish by the time she leaves Brown, but that’s highly dependent on the University’s ability to increase revenue and donations.”


— With additional reporting by Mathias Heller, Maxine Joselow, Eli Okun and Adam Toobin


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