On Their Merits Alone

By Emily Gold Boutilier / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
Morning rain moved Opening Convocation indoors this year, and freshmen found themselves ambling through a cardboard cutout of the Van Wickle Gates rather than the real thing. Still, President Ruth Simmons upheld the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, standing regally behind a lectern in the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center as she declared the school year officially open. Seated be-fore her were cheering freshmen—a group that seems younger every year—as well as new graduate and medical students. Simmons told the incoming students that while she did not know whether the year ahead would be fair or stormy, “we do know that learning will take place in these halls and that you will be changed for it.”

The class of ’07 is joining Brown at a historic moment. The faculty is the largest ever. There are more courses from which to choose, including forty-eight seminars exclusively for freshmen. The University has more money, too, thanks in part to above-average endowment returns and record-breaking Annual Fund donations. Most striking, the class of ’07 is the first to be admitted need blind—every one of its members was accepted without regard to his or her ability to pay tuition.

As a result, 42 percent of freshmen are on financial aid, up from 40 percent last year, according to the admission office. In previous years applicants’ ability to pay played a part in the admission decision for somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of freshmen, a frustrating situation, according to Director of Admission Michael Goldberger. “This year was a wonderful one for our office,” he said in a recent e-mail. “It was a great boost for the admission officers.” He estimates that without the need-blind policy, the percentage of students on financial aid would have been consistent with that of previous years: 39 or 40 percent.

Brown’s first need-blind class entered a year and a half after the Corporation approved President Simmons’s Initiatives for Academic Enrichment, in which she called not only for need-blind admission but for other changes, including 100 new faculty positions. This fall thirty-eight new professors arrived on campus, fifteen of them filling newly created slots.

Despite these costly policy changes, Brown ended the 2002–03 fiscal year in June with a $2.9 million surplus. Though less than 1 percent of the total budget, the surplus is noteworthy, says Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Elizabeth Huidekoper. Brown managed to save money despite a sharp increase last year in students’ financial need, which meant a drop in revenues from tuition and fees as well as red ink in the financial-aid budget. Huidekoper attributes the surplus to several factors: the record-breaking $19.7 million the Brown Annual Fund raised last year, low interest rates on Brown’s debt, and a hiring freeze that was in effect for all nonfaculty positions from December 2002 to this October.

The University this year also reported a healthy 6.5 percent return on its endowment—a figure well above the industry average of 2.9 percent, as reported by the Commonfund Benchmark Study of Educational Endowments, which surveyed 122 institutions. (Then again, Harvard reported a 12.5 percent return.)

All these numbers should give Simmons’s academic expansion a lift—and guarantee a challenging time for the incoming class. Over the next four years, Professor of History Carolyn Dean told students at Opening Convocation, “you’ll begin to leave behind the frustrating feeling of being thwarted by someone else’s apparently superior arguments and begin to develop arguments of your own. That, you have to admit, is an extraordinary opportunity.”

Simmons then invited the freshmen to reassemble outside and march again through the Van Wickle Gates—the real ones this time.

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November / December 2003