Mixing It Up

May 3rd, 2007
Is Brown going backward when it comes to race and ethnicity? How successful has the University been in attracting and holding onto a diverse mix of students and faculty members? Is the campus really committed to its lofty goals of openness and equal opportunity?

These were some of the questions that a group of fifteen scholars and minority alumni examined during four days on campus in late January and early February. Chaired by former Corporation fellow and Harvard Medical School professor Augustus White III '57, the Visiting Committee on Diversity, as the group was known, heard from 350 students, faculty, and staff during its campus stay. Over the next two months, it developed a number of recommendations, which were made public in an April report called "Diversity, Pluralism, and Community at Brown."

Citing "complacency, a dispersed system of governance with limited accountability, and questionable resolve," the report argues that "Brown risks falling backward, losing ground, or, perhaps worst of all, not seizing the opportunity within its grasp to be the national leader in higher education practicing diversity, pluralism, and community." The numbers support this conclusion. Last year, for example, only 2.9 percent of the faculty was black, down from 3.5 percent in 1995; African-American undergraduate enrollment has also declined, from 7.4 per- cent in 1986-87 to 6.2 percent last academic year.

The committeee details sixteen ways the University can reverse such trends. These include providing the financial and intellectual support to turn the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the ethnic-studies program into world-class efforts, recruiting and retaining more faculty members and graduate students of color, integrating the Third World Transition Program into the overall first-year orientation, achieving need-blind admission, and creating "more and broader opportunities for the study of diversity-related intellectual questions." In addition, the report calls for a greater institutional commitment to recruiting and hiring a more diverse staff as well as faculty. The guiding principle, White told a small audience of students and alumni at a forum on Commencement weekend, is that "education is enhanced if it has different perspectives."

The Visiting Committee included such well-known thinkers as former Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer, Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, Harvard professor William Julius Wilson, as well as such prominent alumni as White, Corporation Fellow Steven Jordan '82, UC Berkeley professor Pedro Noguera '81, and Brown Trustee Anita Spivey '74. Together they tried to assess Brown's performance since the campus protests of 1968, 1975, and 1985, each of which was followed by resolutions and promises to make Brown a more racially and ethnically diverse university.

The committee was determined to produce a more specific report this time, one that might have a better chance at implementation. The resulting report acknow-ledges that such innovations as the Third World Center and the Third World Transition Program, while innovative when they were created, may themselves be in need of updating. A majority of the committee, for example, recommended abandoning the "Third World" moniker, which, the report states, "is known to be offensive to some students." As Tulane medical school professor Thomas Whitecloud III, who is an American Indian, wrote, "The term 'Third World' to an outsider makes no sense whatsoever.... It is offensive especially to Native American peoples."

At the same time, the committee recognizes that such concrete steps can only make sense within a larger moral context. The report urges Brown to "adopt an overall vison of diversity, pluralism, and community," and it hints at what such a vision might contain. In contrast to the diversity politics of the last three decades, which have tended to underscore racial, ethnic, and sexual-preference differences, the authors introduce a new emphasis on community. "Brown's culture," the report notes, "is marked by the deep value it places on individualism and autonomy" in its curriculum, for example. While this emphasis is laudable, the report continues, "it can work against a sense of shared community and the notion of shared responsibility for the character and quality of the Brown experience."

What kind of change, if any, will come out of this report? In it, committee members explicitly recognize that change will take time and money. But the greatest obstacle, perhaps, will be the complacency the committee discovered on campus last winter. It will take a dedicated president to overcome that.

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Related Issue
July / August 2000