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Kenyon GS: Brown — a leaderless university

In an era of breaking glass ceilings, it still remains that a Brunonian has yet to break through to the highest elected office in the land.


Last Tuesday, the Twittersphere was abuzz with commentary on the first Democratic primary debate of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. The two Democrat front-runners, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — along with the trolling tweets of Republican front-runner Donald Trump — dominated the trending topics. But Brunonia’s own former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 was an inspiration with a number of colorful and comedic insights.


Likening Chafee’s listless debate performance to a “screensaver,” “an old issue of Yankee Magazine in the storage hold of someone’s boat” and “a Model T era town car,” Twitter users poked fun at the former governor.  Taking into account further mocking of Chafee’s own assertion that he is “a block of granite” (enter funny photos of piles of granite dubbed “Lincoln Chafee, in a fun family portrait, palling around with his wife and children”), the former governor clearly failed to galvanize support.


Chafee’s less-than-stellar performance attaches to larger questions: Where is the love for a Brunonian on the national debate stage? Will Brown ever produce a president?


Granted, in the 2016 election cycle, Brunonia has contributed a candidate to each side of the political aisle: the aforementioned Chafee and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal ’91.5. Jindal, like Chafee, has also failed to garner support for his presidential bid. Unable to graduate from the Republican “undercard” debates and gain larger national visibility, Jindal has seen his poll numbers remain at an average of 0.6 percent of support from the Republican electorate.


Let it be said, though, that both Chafee and Jindal are about as electable to the Oval Office as it is likely that the Brown community will agree on a definition of “expression” anytime soon.  (In a Herald opinions column last spring, I predicted the doomed fate of the Chafee campaign.) 


A review of our peer institutions highlights a clustering of presidents to five of the eight Ivies. Harvard leads the count, having graduated eight of our 43 presidents, including President Barack Obama. Yale has graduated five presidents, including former President George W. Bush. Princeton and Columbia have each graduated three former presidents, while President William Henry Harrison attended Penn but never graduated. Brown, along with Dartmouth and Cornell, remains without a president to call its own.


In the hypothetical scenario that the general election were to be held tomorrow, the two current front-runners — Donald Trump as a Penn graduate and Hillary Clinton as a Yale Law School graduate — would only further aggregate the dominance of the White House by non-Brunonian Ivy Leaguers.


What is it that stops Brunonians from making it all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?


Make no mistake, Brown has produced many renowned graduates who appear in a litany of different professions and positions throughout society. In addition to the two Brunonians running to capture the White House this election cycle, Brunonians in high office include New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan ’80 P’15, Delaware Governor Jack Markell ’82 and Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen ’67. Looking to Hollywood, several notable Brunonians stand out, including Jon Krasinski ’01, Julie Bowen ’91 and Emma Watson ’14. In business, one can find media magnate Ted Turner ’60 and former Apple CEO John Sculley ’61. This is only a handful of alums in a great and continuous tradition of men and women walking out through the Van Wickle Gates and achieving noteworthy milestones in society.


The question remains, though: Why is it Brunonians cannot break through the glass ceiling that is reaching the White House? Would the United States and our society not benefit from a recipient of the open curriculum? Does the University’s unofficial “most liberal of the Ivies” label bother conservative voters? (It wouldn’t bother this columnist!) Or are our Brunonian alums and students alike just so passionate and dedicated to other far-reaching causes in this world to care about running for public office? Perhaps Brunonians are just too busy, supposedly playing beer pong with Malia Obama, to aspire for a presidential life. 


Indeed, the University lacks a law school and a business school — each type of institution-within-an-institution having delivered our last several presidents — but could our cozy relationship with the Rhode Island School of Design produce a president? Could the Warren Alpert Medical School offer up a Brunonia-inspired Ben Carson? Perhaps a contemplative studies concentrator could give our federal government some insight and wisdom that it most desperately needs. Despite the facts today, I am convinced just yet that we will elect a fellow Brunonian to the White House one day. Perhaps it will be you; perhaps it will be me.


Let’s just hope that whoever it is performs better than our two current representatives in the Democrat and Republican primaries. Yikes!


Ian Kenyon GS is a public affairs candidate with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and lives, eats and breathes campaign season. Email him at ian_kenyon@brown.edu.



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