As first-years, we had no idea what it really meant when we stepped through the Van Wickle Gates and, finally, into Brown for the first time. For so long, getting here had been the mission that defined our lives. We all came from unique backgrounds, but one unifying goal tied us all together: making it to Brown. So, in that moment as we stepped through the gates, we celebrated.
Little did we know, we had less reason for celebration than we thought.
We thought we were joining a university dedicated to its mission of serving the community. In reality, we became part of an institution that, for its entire history, has been a parasite on the city it resides in. This ugly truth found us first-years in a myriad of ways. For some of us, it was during the Third World Transition Program, listening as our minority peer counselors told us about their personal journeys within Brown. For others, it was in affinity spaces or through mentorship from the student activists who have carried the fight for University accountability before us. In any case, we all quickly became disillusioned by Brown as its truth became apparent.
Since its founding, Brown has rapidly acquired land in Providence, with its present land assessments valued at over $1.3 billion. However, Brown’s nonprofit status makes most of the University’s property tax-exempt. This means that instead of the nearly $50 million that Brown would pay in taxes if it were not tax-exempt, the University is only paying the city about $2.4 million in commercial taxes and around $2-4 million in voluntary payments annually. Every year, Providence misses out on tens of millions of dollars it desperately needs for its schools, pensions and infrastructure — and Rhode Island taxpayers are forced to pay the difference.
This lack of financial compensation has devastating impacts — as seen in 2019’s damning report from Johns Hopkins University that led to a state takeover of the underfunded Providence Public School District. Brown’s behavior in Providence has other impacts, too: The restless expansion of its student body contributed to residents of majority-immigrant neighborhoods like Fox Point losing their homes and community they once held dear, all while housing prices in the city have skyrocketed.
It’s easy to miss what is going on around us when we are surrounded by Brown’s abundant resources and opportunities. As we learn about the vile hypocrisy of this institution, it is imperative that we remember that these are not just abstract inequities that we bring up in discussion seminars or incorporate into argumentative essays. These injustices affect people: the people looking up at the bubble on the hill with hardened eyes, watching generations of students crusade through Brown’s institutional machine of extraction from Providence.
Some of us work as outreach volunteers from Brown’s campus, and have witnessed these injustices firsthand. From conversations with the most vulnerable outside of the bubble — unhoused residents of Providence from Kennedy Plaza to Southside — Brown’s lack of accountability in its relationship with the city becomes strikingly clear. Offering whatever we can afford from Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere’s funds, we haul backpacks full of crackers, water, heated blankets, gloves and other band-aid solutions to provide short-term fixes to the larger problem at hand. But when individuals understandably ask for more help, Brown’s insufficient investment in its community suddenly becomes tangible. We end up with a stream of excuses:
“No, I can’t help because my club can’t afford it.”
“No, I can’t help because Brown only feeds and provides shelter for those with an ID card.”
“No, I can’t help because I’m just a student.”
But as much as these failings disappoint us, we still love Brown. We love the school for the opportunities it gives us, and because we believe in its stated mission of serving the community. That’s why it’s so hard for us to watch the school fall short of its promises. Brown prides itself as a place committed to preparing students to change the world for the better, but does not hold itself to that same standard. All we want is the Brown we were promised: a university free of hypocrisy and courageous enough to solve problems in its community, not cause them.
And though this ideal is far from reality today, it is not unreasonable to fight for a Brown that fosters the holistic equity that its students advocate for. We can make the university pay its fair share. We can make noise and show Brown that we want accountability. And if we act now, our ideal university won’t be so far away. Let’s push Brown to open its physical space to all of Providence: campus buildings can and should be used as warming and cooling spaces; access to every library can and should be extended to students across the city. Beyond our campus, let’s get Brown to increase its voluntary payments to at least $15 million annually. The vast resources of this institution must be distributed equitably and fairly. As much as these changes are on Brown to make, we as students must demand immediate action towards these goals.
This week, the Brown Activist Coalition — an alliance of on-campus student activist groups that holds conferences and seeks to build solidarity — released a list of demands for a better Brown. We are calling for Brown to redistribute its wealth, enhance its contribution to the city’s education system and commit to supporting the Providence community. We urge you to support our efforts by signing our petition. As students, our voices are our most powerful tools – let’s use them.
It is up to us to make this University better. But a better Brown is only possible if we collectively acknowledge its problems and put the pressure on the University to adhere to these demands.
Even as first-years, it is our responsibility to uphold these values and educate ourselves so that we may hold Brown accountable throughout our time on campus. We are the future leaders of this school, and our work to better Brown has to start now.
Garrett Brand ’26 can be reached at email@example.com. Henry Lew ’26 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christelyn Larkin ’26 can be reached at email@example.com. They are all members of the Brown Activist Coalition. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.