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The Bruno Brief: Is Brown as liberal as it seems?

In the third episode of The Bruno Brief’s series on myths at Brown, Producer Carter Moyer speaks with Jacob Smollen, Bruno Brief and Metro editor, about his reporting on Brown’s left-leaning reputation. 

Subscribe to The Bruno Brief on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed. Send tips and feedback for the next episode to herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU. 

Carter Moyer

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In November 1960, Brown, along with most of the Ivy League, held elections.

Then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy were running for president.

Audio Clip from 1960 

A record number of Americans, upwards of 67 million, go to the polls to elect the 35th president of the United States.

Carter Moyer

The schools and pollsters wanted to know which candidate students and faculty preferred. Kennedy, a Democrat, only won the majority of the vote at one Ivy League school.

Audio Clip from 1960 

The democratic nominee is an early favorite.

Carter Moyer

It wasn’t Brown. 

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Only at Harvard, Kennedy’s alma mater, did Kennedy win the mock election. On College Hill, the Democratic candidate suffered a defeat, narrowly losing the vote 48.6% to 46.1%.

The results — a Republican presidential candidate besting his Democratic counterpart — would probably be surprising to see at Brown today. In a Spring 2020 Herald poll, just over half of Brown students said they would vote for Bernie Sanders and 21.1% would vote for Joe Biden. Only 3.4% of students said that they would support Donald Trump.

So what changed? And why does Brown have a liberal reputation in the first place? What does it even mean to be a liberal university anyway? 

There aren’t clear answers to these questions, but Jacob Smollen, Bruno Brief producer and Metro Editor, tried his best. He spoke to students, professors and alums about Brown’s open curriculum, extensive history of student activism and a whole lot more. 

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This is episode three of our season on myths at Brown. My name is Carter Moyer — this is the Bruno Brief.

Kenneth Miller

Toward the end of my time, 1969 and 1970. There were mass demonstrations against the war literally all over the country. And if you look at the history of that, you will see student takeovers, buildings trashed, boycotts of military recruiting on campus and so forth. And what happened at Brown was exceptional. Two students, Elliot Maxwell and Ira Magaziner, decided that they could channel student activism into something that wasn't happening in other universities. That is a reform of the curriculum.

Jacob Smollen

That was Ken Miller ’70. He’s a professor emeritus of biology at Brown. He taught for 42 years. He’s also a Brown alum, graduating in 1970. He believes that the creation of Brown’s reputation as a liberal institution was spurred by student action in the late 1960s. The creation of the Open Curriculum in 1969, anti-Vietnam War protests and the 1968 Black Student Walkout were just a few examples of the campus ethos at the time.

Kenneth Miller

I think Brown came away from that with a reputation for liberalism.

Carter Moyer

Sheryl Brissett Chapman ’71, now the executive director of The National Center for Children and Families and a trustee emerita at the University, was also on College Hill in the late sixties. She was one of eight Black Pembroke College students who participated in the 1968 Black Student Walkout. She wasn’t surprised to hear Brown students’ early 1960s voting patterns. 

Jacob Smollen

Chapman recalled that her roommate owned a horse and that many students were legacies.

She said that Magaziner’s open curriculum upended the “liberal” model of education. But still, she recalled feeling invisible among her predominantly white peers.

Sheryl Brissett Chapman

At the same time that that was happening there was a spirit for the Black woman. It's like we can’t even talk about, ‘Where's the rest of us?’ We thought we were wanted here. We're kind of invisible here. And Ralph Ellison's book “The Invisible Man” kind of said it all, we're only gonna be talked about if we leave campus  

So again, this idea that confrontation with the status quo is a violent, radical idea, when in fact, it really was a necessary reality for Black students to survive and grow.

Carter Moyer

Chapman described that while Brown may have ostensibly been a liberal place, it didn’t mean the University community was insulated from discrimination.

Sheryl Brissett Chapman

I’m saying that there’s this interesting tension between this diverse enterprise and the flexibility and the dynamism of it. But also that it brings to the surface the more painful, ugly discriminatory sides of our world — all in the same place.

Jacob Smollen

Today, Chapman thinks that Brown has a liberal association, defined by its ability to adapt and evolve. She told me that the meaning of liberalism is constantly changing, that’s what makes it liberal.

Sheryl Brissett Chapman

Rigidity and stability, that's conservatism. And Brown ain’t conservative.

Carter Moyer

Student activism continued into the 1970s and ’80s, with protests against the CIA, South African apartheid and more. Miller highlighted the stand Brown students took on the proliferation of nuclear weapons as another example of why Brown has established a reputation as a “liberal” university.

Kenneth Miller

Students at Brown came up with, I think, a real attention-getting stunt, which is that they demanded that the university stock suicide pills, so that in the event of a nuclear war, they can all rush over to health services and kill themselves.

Jacob Smollen

What Miller is describing here is Cyanide for Peace, a 1984 movement led by Jason Salzman ’86 and other organizers. The protest gained national attention after Brown students passed a referendum in an October 1984 UCS election that Brown Health Services should stock suicide pills. Brown ultimately refused to do so.

I spoke with Salzman, and here’s how he described the referendum.

Jason Salzman

If you were to miraculously survive a nuclear war, you would want a suicide pill at Brown. Especially because we are almost certainly a target in a global nuclear exchange, but also as a as a wake-up-call is a symbol of that nuclear war is suicide and that we need to act now.

Jacob Smollen

Salzman said that while Brown already had a reputation for being liberal during his time on campus, he thought that most students were ultimately apathetic.

Jason Salzman

There certainly were people who were very active and concerned and visible but you know, the majority just like other liberal places, whether they’re campuses or cities, was extremely checked out.

Carter Moyer

After the referendum, Salzman decided to interview many of the reporters that had covered the story for an independent study, trying to understand what made it so interesting to them. 

Jacob Smollen

Salzman told me he found that reporters were drawn to the story by the contrast between suicide and the image of young, privileged college students. He said that Brown’s reputation as an Ivy League school, particularly a liberal one, gave the movement legitimacy.

Jason Salzman

Brown, at this point, has a reputation of being more liberal, more progressive than other schools. If something happens at Brown and because of that reputation, you know, especially among certain elite media that might have gone to Brown itself or other schools, that they they're drawn to stories that that fall in that category. So I think that cycle is self-feeding and will continue to contribute to Brown's reputation as being more liberal than other schools.

Jacob Smollen

Nearly a decade later, Johanna Fernandez ’93, a leader of Students for Aid and Minority Admission, also known as SAMA, found herself in University Hall. Fernandez and other student activists had organized a meeting with then-President Vartan Gregorian to advocate for need-blind admissions, but Gregorian was out of town. Outside, hundreds of students rallied in support of SAMA on the Main Green. 

That’s when Fernandez made a request.

Johanna Fernandez

I remember that I said, ‘I need to go to the bathroom, can I get permission to go to the bathroom?’ Because we were not allowed to move around in the building once we were inside. And I found a bathroom that had a window that opened into the Main Green and I gave a speech about what was happening inside from the bathroom window and explained to everyone that we had turned the failed meeting into a sit-in. And the others inside realized what was going on. They joined me and we proceeded to rile up the students outside who then rushed into University Hall.

Carter Moyer

Over 300 students occupied University Hall. Due to the building’s status as a state monument, administration eventually presented students with a decision: Leave or be arrested.

Jacob Smollen

The 253 students who stayed were ultimately arrested and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and more. The need-blind admission that they advocated for would not be fully implemented by the University until 2007.

Here’s how Fernandez described the political climate on campus at the time of the protests.

Johanna Fernandez

Brown has been known historically, especially since the 60s, as the most liberal of the Ivy Leagues. It was a liberal campus, for sure. A lot of experimentation, a lot of debate and discussion about racism, and homophobia. Brown was known for just having regular protests, students were engaged in the life of the campus and what was going on in the world.

Carter Moyer

But despite the liberal label, Fernandez said students involved in SAMA, including herself, faced an “enormous amount of repression” after the occupation of University Hall from Brown’s administration. 

Jacob Smollen

When Fernandez returned home that summer, she said her parents handed her a letter that the University had sent them. Fernandez’s parents only spoke Spanish, so the letter remained unopened. Inside, the University claimed that Fernandez and other SAMA members had been manipulated by communists into taking over University Hall.

Johanna Fernandez

I read this letter with all of these lines about us, and communists literally invading our brains. It was something out of the 1950s. It was just crazy and shocking. And I just started crying. That was the level of repression and insanity that the administration engaged in. Essentially sending this crazy letter to our parents in the hope that our parents would reel us in. Of course, it didn't work for me because my parents couldn't speak English. So they gave me the damn letter, and asked me to translate it for them.

Jacob Smollen

Three decades later, Jada Wooten ’24, vice president of the Black Student Union and co-president of Students for Educational Equity, feels there’s still some hypocrisy or contradiction underlying Brown’s liberal reputation. She feels that Brown is quick to cite examples of past student activism, yet has not fulfilled their aims, like the 1968 Black Student Walkout demand that Brown’s student body reflect that of the country as a whole. In October 2022, 8.2% of degree seeking undergrads self-identified as Black, compared with 13.6% of the United States. 

Jada Wooten

I think I was almost misled about how liberal it would be. For instance, like when I was doing tours, I'd ask about community engagement, activism, kind of all the things I do now. And like reflecting on how that was presented to me, I think it was like very much in a performative way. 

Yes, like, in comparison to other like schools it’s a liberal place. And I think part of that is just the association of like, the liberal education and like, what comes with it, liberal politics. But at the same time, like when we're talking about kind of our open curriculum or about protests, like the University kind of often co-ops that work, which kind of dismisses the progress that the University could make. And there's so much work that like future people will do to make it an even better place.

Carter Moyer

Others perceive faults in Brown’s “liberalism” in different ways, such as free speech on campus. Here’s Miller again:

Kenneth Miller

What I generally resist is sort of the caricature of saying that only left wing progressive ideas are welcome on campus. And if you criticize those, you will be ostracized, you will be canceled. In other words, the idea that the University's political structure is closed. And the reason I would say that is because I myself have written a couple of opinion pieces that have been published in the Brown Daily Herald that took a stance against certain types of student activism that I thought were disruptive to the University community. And the best known of these is the disruption a few years ago of the intended speech by the police commissioner of New York City.

Jacob Smollen

In October 2013, the University’s Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy invited then-New York City police department commissioner Ray Kelly to speak about “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” Kelly was known for his support of “stop-and-frisk” policing, NYPD’s application of which was ruled unconstitutional in 2013. It was also called “a form of racial profiling” by the U.S. District Court Judge in the case. 

Brown students and organizers from Direct Action for Rights and Equality, the Providence Youth Student Movement and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities demanded the event be canceled, writing in a petition that Kelly had “a history of implementing aggressive policing policies that systematically target marginalized communities.” 

Carter Moyer

But event organizers refused to do so, and students and organizers staged a protest against Kelly, reading a collective statement and sharing their experiences with racism and racial profiling as the commissioner attempted to speak, eventually causing the talk to be shut down.

Protestors

Ray Kelly you can’t hide, we charge you with homicide.

Administrator

It has to be a basic principle of this university that allows for free speech. We are asking you to allow… 

Protestor #1

How many people do not want to hear Ray Kelly? [cheering]

Jacob Smollen

The incident made national news with articles in the New York Times, the Atlantic, LA Times and more — with some articles focusing on whether protesting students would face punishment. In a letter to the Brown community following the incident, President Christina Paxson P’19 P’MD’20 called the cancellation “a sad day for the Brown community,” emphasizing the value of free speech, even when its content is offensive. 

Carter Moyer

In an op-ed in the Herald, protesters argued, among other concerns, that it was “unacceptable” to invite a speaker to campus who made “students feel threatened or intimidated.” 

Kelly would always be the “primary voice in the room,” leaving protesting students with lesser power, they wrote.

Jacob Smollen

The students that protested against Kelly also referenced some of the events we’ve discussed so far, such as need-blind admissions and even the Open Curriculum, and some we haven’t, like the establishment of the Third World Center and the ethnic studies program. In the op-ed, they wrote that students have always played an important role in “pushing the University to adopt the progressive and open-minded approach to education that it currently boasts.” 

Carter Moyer

Today, Ben Eden ’24, vice president of the Brown Republicans, still says the Ray Kelly incident lingers in the back of his mind.

Ben Eden

It does not feel like Brown is always committed to, at least a lot of people here are not always committed to open debate and having other opinions on campus.

Even people who are committed to the open debate and they're like, “Of course we want to be placed for everyone,” there are still, they fall squarely on a certain side of the political spectrum. 

Carter Moyer

But, Isaac Slevin, a Sunrise Brown organizer, feels differently.

Isaac Slevin

I always want to challenge the idea that there's no space for conservatives and all, you know, liberal students do is create a bubble when that's really not true. And even at Brown, which has this notorious reputation for being a liberal school. There's still a lot of space for that.

Jacob Smollen

Overall though, several people told us that Brown’s liberal reputation, whatever it might represent for them, plays a cyclical role in the University’s culture.

Isaac Slevin

I do in a lot of ways think it is self-reinforcing. Because Brown will have a reputation for something which will lead to certain students applying and certain students not applying, and probably certain faculty moving to the University and certain faculty not moving to the University.

Carter Moyer

But, in the end, some say that we shouldn’t even be labeling Brown’s political reputation one way or another in the first place. Here’s Cecilia Marrinan ’24, the president of Brown College Democrats.

Cecilia Marrinan

If you looked at the 2020 election, you probably could argue that more Brown students would have voted for Biden. But, I do believe that categorizing an environment in terms of liberal or conservative could be problematic and that caters to a two-party system that isn’t dynamic and also shuts out different nuances within each party.

Carter Moyer

That’s it for this week’s episode of the Bruno Brief. Tune in next week to hear from Bruno Brief producers Matias Gersberg and I about the role of wealth at Brown. This episode was produced by Liana Haigis, Finn Kirkpatrick, Elysee Barakett, Samantha Renzulli, Daphne Dluzniewski, Matias Gersberg, Sonya McNatt, Olivia Tingley-Kelley, Jacob Smollen and me, Carter Moyer. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe to The Bruno Brief and leave a review. Thanks for listening.



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