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Sweren ’15: Cross-registration, one-sided

Imagine a school called FRISB with a long-standing relationship with another school called Frown — dating to, say, 1902. And say FRISB offers courses in something Frown has never taught — say, astrophysics. Would Frown limit the number of courses its students could take at FRISB? Or would Frown support its students in taking all the astrophysics courses they wanted? It’s astrophysics, after all.

Here are some numbers. Of the 111 Brown students who took courses at the Rhode Island School of Design last semester, 15 needed special approval from a dean, a source in the Office of the Registrar told me. Four of those were due to late registration, bringing us to 11. Five of those were for approval of a liberal arts class. And then there were six.

These six petitions — I accounted for two of them — were made by students seeking approval from a dean to exceed the four-credit limit on RISD classes imposed by Brown’s Committee on Academic Standing.

RISD does not impose that quota on its students, which implies a mutual exchange. Its website states, “Through a long-standing agreement between the two institutions, RISD degree candidates may enroll in courses at Brown University and vice versa” and that “Brown University is the only college or university with which RISD has a reciprocal cross-registration agreement” — emphasis added.

So much for reciprocity.

The cross-registration agreement and CAS’s justification for the rule are nowhere to be found online. CAS’s official stance on the matter can be found in its handbook — something, I imagine, very few prospective students are thumbing through. It states, “Brown has a cross-registration agreement with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) that allows Brown students to count four RISD courses toward their 30-course degree requirement.” This sentence is misleading at best and an intentional misrepresentation at worst.

There is a physical agreement between Brown and RISD stipulating the terms of the exchange. Due to the nature and difficulty of RISD courses, a three-credit RISD class counts as a single credit toward a Brown degree. There are also six-credit RISD classes that count as two Brown credits. Christopher Dennis, Brown’s deputy dean of the College, who chairs CAS, has assured me that Brown’s four-credit limit is not found anywhere in the agreement. I have requested access to it, but I have yet to see the text itself.

Why then has Brown decided to limit the number of courses its students can take at RISD? Why has CAS created an arbitrary rule that hinders intellectual freedom and violates a “reciprocal,” “vice versa” agreement? And why, worst of all, has CAS failed to provide any reasoning behind its decision to make a quota and chosen, instead, to publish a false and misleading statement in its place?

Perhaps the reason is financial. But the numbers do not support this claim. RISD, the less endowed of the two schools by a factor of 10, sends more students up the hill than Brown sends down, as The Herald reported in 2012. It was also explained to me that at the end of each semester, whichever school has a net-positive output of students pays the other, as per the agreement. This means, presumably, that RISD’s financial loss is negligible and does not dent its coffers. Therefore, one can imagine that Brown could easily absorb any potential additional cost.

Perhaps the reason is preventative. Perhaps if there were no boundaries, the students at Brown would enroll in RISD courses en masse, disrupting equilibrium and academic order. But again, the numbers disagree. If this were the case, why did last semester see only six petitions out of an undergraduate student body of 6,182? This low number of petitions does not suggest a need for a powerful preventative clause.

Without other options, I am led to believe that CAS created this rule for ideological reasons. I have been told that taking too many RISD courses threatens a “Brown education.” But even if I accepted this logic — that a creative writing class or painting class at Brown has more inherent value than a furniture course at RISD — it would follow that Brown would accept, at most, 15 cross-registered credits, as is done with accepted transfer credits.

The limit, however, is four, and CAS’s case-by-case rulings on individual circumstances are kept completely private — a lack of transparency that makes the decisions seem particularly arbitrary.

Universities seek to broaden perspective and provide academic specificity — that is, the specializing in a particular department or field. We, at Brown, subscribe to this policy. Concentration in a particular area of interest is a hallmark of education.

CAS’s unnecessary and unexplained restriction amounts to a form of censorship that we, as a collective, must reject. Brown should be proud of students who take advantage of the cross-registration agreement, particularly those who choose to study a specific field in depth — not censor them. Brown should embrace the students who have taken advantage of the academic freedom that Brown has endorsed through its adoption of the open curriculum.

Brown uses this open curriculum and its relationship with RISD as selling points to prospective students. And we students chose to study here, in part, because of the University’s egalitarian, forward-thinking policies. But this policy of restriction is old-world.

CAS, a faculty committee comprising eight voting members — four faculty members, three deans and the registrar — possesses all powers of government: legislative, judicial and executive. It makes the rules, interprets them and enforces them. There are no checks and balances, which leads to individuals making decisions behind closed doors without any need to explain their process. This is a clear path to overstepping and abusing power.

Any rules that affect or hinder academic freedom or intellectual development must not be tolerated at Brown. Whether credits should apply toward concentration requirements is a different matter, best left to individual departments.

Now say Frown were called Brown and FRISB called RISD. Would Brown limit the number of science or math or engineering courses not offered here but offered by a top college in its field to an arbitrary number? Say, four? It pains me to consider this hypothetical, and I am left wondering how a university can invoke policies that starkly contrast the ideas it puts forward.

Unfortunately, RISD’s standing as the number one design school in the country does not live up to Brown’s standards. Perhaps, if RISD were a STEM school, we wouldn’t find art so scary.


Evan Sweren ’15 is a senior at Brown.



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