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Arthur Matuszewski ’11, CRC Independent Study Coordinator, on the future of Brown:

February 15, 2010

How did we get here? Where do we go from here?
Envisioning Brown Together

There’s a tendency amongst undergraduates to overstate the importance of our particular historical moment. Newly baptized in the waters of our most revered institution, we tend to see every righteous grumbling about this or that administrative slight as coming hot on the heels of a coming apocalypse of all that drew us here and all that we know and love. For first-years, the advising situation tolls the bells of armageddon – every freshman representative of the past few decades has campaigned on the promise of fixing this beast, and every future representative will continue to do so. While this may seem just another old saw on the nature of progress, it may warm some heartstrings to note that Elliot Maxwell and Ira Magaziner, venerated architects of the New Curriculum, grumbled about this very same promise. Acknowledging advising as a central concern of the New Curriculum they proposed, they warned of professors who may struggle to balance their research responsibilities with the proper counsel of students such intellectual freedom would require. Generation after generation of Brown students have carried on these old torches in the fight to preserve what we as a community have held near and dear, and while these concerns may seem little more than refrain, they are the chief hope and sustenance of students who design to demand more from their time here by leaving it a better place than it began.

Yet, as with all things, it is essential to understand where this institution as a whole is coming from so that we may properly conceive of where we are heading. Good intentions and grand visions often fall by the wayside in the face of carefully crafted rebuttals and values, priorities and a mission decided long before. Individual students, within the calculus of the university, are a transitive property. We’re here for four years, and within four more we’ll be a distinctly different constituency for the university to attend to. This stop-gap, in essence, presents its own fortunes and foibles. Every year a new set of eager eyes, minds and vigorous bodies charge the hill to make it their own, fighting a million little battles with a million little triumphs so as to best make Brown the wellspring of innovation and enterprise it has historically been. Within this, however, is the caveat that there has and always will be that ‘historically been’ part – and it is as much a charge of students to preserve that as it is to make that preservation distinctly ours. Deciding the direction of a university – any university – is a process perpetually more important than the product: while the product is contingent on a particular set of abilities, interests and resources the process is that which we as students can best attend to in the creation of ourselves and our environment-at-large. In a sense, undergraduate study expects from us a certain delusional belief in the importance of our time here and seems to require a similarly deluded belief in the nature of change for us to make any mark here.

Brown’s direction is not an easy moral choice. For every new idea, there is a need to return to tradition and frame our arguments in the frameworks bequeathed to us by those who made Brown their own way back when. Revolutionary change, of the kind we envision Maxwell and Magaziner’s to be, is never an expected process –it occurs at extraordinary times with extraordinary circumstances. Yet, within that revolution, there is also an inherent return – a reappraisal of that which made us unique in the past and a careful evaluation of how to best engage these elements in the creation of something entirely new to ourselves and to society at large. This is not a call to action – rather, it is a call to thought; to the careful consideration of how what we as a university-community decide to do now impacts us as students, faculty, and members of one Brown whole today and in the future. This is not a conflict between Ruth and Ira. There are no evil suits, no back-room conspirators and no revolutionaries screaming words of wisdom at the midnight hour. What exists is a moment of great promise and possibility for what we as a university can and should be and, more so, for what we as students can do to get us there. If this belief seems contradictory to our original claim that we’re all taking ourselves too seriously here and that this is all too much a post-Obama pipe-dream, we hope that it isn’t – acknowledging the pun. What’s created before us is the product of countless decisions made through the service of many towards a shared notion of what Brown is. Students, passing through, have shaped and will shape again what this notion is and it’s never too early nor too late to expect that this responsibility will fall to us.

Cutting the philosophy-talk, Brown’s endowment has taken a roughly $800 million-dollar hit. The numbers are splayed weekly across the Brown Daily Herald’s pages – we’re set to massively reorganize our organizational structures, and as we move forward with the Plan for Academic Enrichment we’re expected to continue the rapid hustle we embarked on years ago. Our workers are in the streets, and our buildings are rising along with our tuitions. Our faculty and administrators are increasingly new, and our research is booming. We, as students, are coming out of an SAT-grind culture hurtling us through our formative years with the ferocity of young lemurs clutching our way out of a pre-professional womb. As we internationalize, diversify, and otherwise re-jigger our internal statistics, we become the first generation coming of age and admitted with a thumb on the scale towards a new social order. Financial aid, for the first time in the history of education, is able to admit students without concern for their ability to pay. Our president is black, and our mayor aims to tax us. Our faculty is starting to look like the new us, and our students are no longer apathetic or detached – clocking good service work across the globe and striving for the common good. We’ve come to grips with occasionally blighted history, and have sought to reinvest in the Providence-town we call home.

Taken together, these elements keep with the general excitement and innovation that has characterized us as an institution. Yet, as a whole, none of these developments are even all that unique to our situation here at Brown.What is it, then, that separates us from our peers? What is it that keeps us individual? In truth, the answers lay far from the questions – nestled in the indeterminate aura of identity and the universal myths all institutions tell themselves in crafting this identity. Faced with this truth, how we do go about crafting a narrative of ourselves in the face of these seemingly sweeping changes? How we do weigh one set of values over another? This is not about factions, nor is it about speaking to a particular interest group seeking their own little share of campus-loot – Brown, as one-community – has persistently come together in times of great duress to define what it is in changing times. How we go about doing this today is a question open for healthy debate, and it is in this spirit that we offer this framework for contextualizing the myriad questions we face as students and members of the university-community. As a project rooted in the process of understanding ourselves, defining Brown is just one more step upon the path articulated before us that calls us to find the words necessary to express just what it is we’re all doing here so as to answer the perennial why? Brown encourages us all to sing our own funky song, but when it comes to Brown, what song is it that we’re all singing?

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