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Editorial: Why universities still matter

Reports of the death of the university in general — and these days, the University, specifically — are greatly exaggerated. We often read predictions of higher education’s decline — hyperbolic prophecies of a future dominated by massive online open courses, flipped classrooms and distance-based learning. We hear that universities are brands, professors are commodities and students are mere consumers. But from time to time, we have a shared experience that helps us remember why the physical presence of the university remains essential. The controversies of the past two weeks have been far from ideal, and we do not believe the ensuing conversation justifies the initial provocation. But as we continue to discuss and debate, we are cognizant of the unique environment with which we are provided — a place where we can hear from passionate, thoughtful and insightful students, faculty members and staff members who have come to a variety of conclusions. It is Brown’s physical presence that makes these necessary conversations possible, and it is events like the protest surrounding New York City Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture that prove our university is more than just the sum of its parts.

Outside the university sphere, it can be remarkably difficult to have these kinds of conversations with such varied and knowledgeable participants. We have faculty members with not only academic expertise but also years or decades of institutional memory to help students understand how present-day events relate to similar instances in Brown’s history. We have students who can provide perspectives from vastly different backgrounds in the United States as well as from abroad. Perhaps most importantly, we have the space — intellectually and physically — to have these discussions. This comes in facilitated formats, with varying degrees of success, and personal conversations with friends, classmates, neighbors and colleagues. Opportunities for these kinds of discussions are lacking in the outside world, as anyone who has seen a thread on Facebook or the comment section on a news site devolve to the lowest common denominator can attest. Even our elected officials often seem incapable of coming to any sort of agreement or understanding with colleagues of different opinions. The university may be one of the last remaining forums for these conversations, and it must be preserved so that we can continue to learn and grow from what it offers.

In our daily lives as students, we often traffic in the theoretical, the remote or the impractical. The controversy of the past two weeks was a rare opportunity for students to implement principles and practices we have honed in our years of schooling but rarely get the chance to apply to situations that touch us personally. Our campus, as much as we would like it not to be, remains segmented. But we have had the opportunity to converse with students we ordinarily wouldn’t have. We have heard from students whose training in various disciplines has given them distinct perspectives, and we have engaged students who often feel removed from these types of discussions. As we have witnessed how our campus was portrayed in the national eye, we have gained a bit of insight into the sometimes vast gulf between the portrayal of an event and the reality we have experienced.

We hope that while the conversation continues, we will remain active listeners. As we move past the Kelly controversy, we will remain appreciative of how the debate has made us stronger as individuals and as an institution and how the discussion has reaffirmed our belief in the university as a necessary space that should be valued and protected.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Rachel Occhiogrosso, and its members, Daniel Jeon, Hannah Loewentheil and Thomas Nath. Send comments to



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