Taking Care of the Future

By The Editors / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007
On February 24, the day after the brown corporation endorsed the first set of major initiatives proposed to them by President Ruth Simmons, the headline in the New York Times was "Brown Adopts Need-Blind Admissions Rule." Similarly, the Boston Globe reported that "Brown OK's Need-Blind Admissions Plan." The Providence Journal went a step further by including a second element of the Simmons proposal: "Brown to Offer Need-Blind Admissions, Hire 100 Teachers." Not surprisingly, the headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education was the most expansive of all. "Brown U.," it read, "Approves 'Need-Blind' Admissions, New Faculty Positions, and Insurance for Graduate Students."

The headlines and the news stories beneath them were, for the most part, factually accurate and welcome; after all, any headline in the New York Times is welcome. And thanks to Simmons, who has been president for less than a year, Brown this fall will join the rest of the Ivy League in adopting need-blind admission policies, will offer graduate students more financial support, and will begin hiring twenty new faculty members a year for the next five years.

But in reporting the details, the newspaper stories missed the coherence and ambition of Simmons's vision. Indeed, the official summary of what she calls her Initiatives for Academic Enrichment works hard to put a modest face on it. The proposal presented to the Corporation "is not an all-encompassing plan for Brown's future," the document asserts, "nor does it attempt to answer all questions about where Brown will go in the future. It is an effort to nourish some programs that need to be strengthened, to support others that are on the threshold of preeminence, and to ensure that Brown's most highly regarded programs retain their leadership position." Yet the document is also a challenge and a statement of possibility, a declaration that the University is back on course and speeding ahead in fifth gear.

In the short term Simmons's proposal is aimed at four areas: faculty, financial aid, the graduate school, and computing and libraries. In addition to expanding the faculty by about 18 percent, she promises to create a more generous academic-leave program to allow professors to devote more time to research. She also pledges to boost financial aid through need-blind admissions and by replacing the work requirement for first-year students with a one-year grant allowing them to devote all their time to academics and extracurricular activities. For the graduate school Simmons plans to attract more and better graduate students by increasing their stipends, providing full health-insurance coverage, and offering humanities and social-science grad students summer funding. Finally, the proposal helps the libraries and campus computing systems by increasing their budgets by at least $1 million a year.

The total cost of the Initiatives for Academic Enrichment approved in February is expected to reach $80 million over the next three years. Where will that money come from? From higher tuition and fees, from a slightly increased draw on the endowment, from more aggressive annual fund-raising, from planning for and including in the University's overall budget the income from the creep in student-body size that's developed in recent years (the number of undergraduates now averages 5,645), and from capturing various savings in nonacademic spending. These measures, when combined with a $40 million budget reserve that Brown has accumulated over the years, should carry the Simmons initiatives for three years, when the University will likely kick off a major fund-raising campaign - one whose goal is likely to be at least $1 billion. "We're assuming that fund-raising will pull us back from the edge," says Executive Vice President of Planning Richard Spies, a former chief financial officer at Princeton and one of Simmons's closest advisers in recent months. "In the meantime we'll live on the edge, because the programmatic and academic returns on the initiatives are so important."

Although these are significant steps, the interview with Simmons on the following pages makes clear that the initiatives approved in February are merely a first step. As the Faculty Executive Committee pointed out in a January white paper on the president's initiatives, "Competition is an overriding fact of academic life today," and the Simmons proposal is the beginning of a comprehensive attempt to position Brown to compete more effectively. As modest as the language in the official summary of the initiatives may seem, the document is the most ambitious to come out of University Hall in at least a decade. Unlike past attempts at improving one or more University programs, Spies observes, the Simmons initiatives are an attempt at "trying to see the institution as a whole, to do this university- wide." At Princeton, he explains, the approach was more typical of universities: "Several years ago Princeton decided that if you want to be a great university, you need to be in the life sciences," so the university raised money to fund that specific academic program. Brown, he says, is attempting something more systemic: "This addresses all disciplines - the humanities and sciences, the graduate school and the undergraduate College - all at the same time."

Over the next year the BAM will examine more closely each of the areas Simmons has targeted. We will attempt to place her initiatives into the context of higher education more generally. In mid-March, two and a half weeks after the Corporation meeting, Editor Norman Boucher, Senior Writer Emily Gold, and Staff Writer Zachary Block '99 began by asking the president to explain to BAM readers how she developed her proposal and to place it in relation to Brown's character and future.



BAM How much of your proposal was formed in your mind before you arrived on campus?
Simmons I had very few fixed ideas about what Brown needed, but one of the first questions the search committee asked me was "We know that the graduate school needs serious attention, and we want to improve the recruitment of students, we want to improve the curriculum, we want to improve the visibility of graduate studies at Brown. What should we do?"

BAM How did you respond?
Simmons The first thing that I said, without even knowing Brown, was "Well, that's not the way it works. There is no such thing as a 'graduate school.' When you do advanced-level study, you have a faculty, and it is the work that faculty does that determines whether or not you get students, whether or not you have a credible graduate program. Once you begin to focus on the graduate school, you're really focusing on the faculty. The only way to achieve what you are describing is to have an aggressive program to recruit faculty and to retain faculty who can attract such students."

BAM How did your thinking progress from that point?
Simmons As time went on and I started to meet with faculty and with administrators, it became clear to me that at a practical level Brown had not done enough over the years to invest in faculty in the way that it should have. It was not until after I got to Brown that I began to understand the context for the questions that I was being asked by the search committee. Only then did I begin to feel more concretely that what we needed to do was to think about how to support the faculty. Once I got here that began to be the focus of my own thinking.

BAM How so?
Simmons I was inundated with reading material. I met with departments and with department chairs and with administrators. I also had a chance to talk to the students - undergraduate students, graduate students. And they all were saying the same thing. That's a dead giveaway. The graduate students were saying, "My department isn't large enough. I don't feel I'm getting the same array of courses that students in this department are getting at X institution. We really need somebody in this subfield, but the department is not large enough to be able to recruit somebody in that certain field." So it was very clear from what I was hearing from graduate students where the tensions were.

BAM What did you hear from undergraduates?
Simmons For undergraduates the concerns were about being locked out of courses, about coming to Brown and then discovering they were not going to be able to get into courses they wanted to get into.

BAM And the faculty?
Simmons The faculty said, "Our department is strong, but it can be stronger." And almost always the questions with the departments were about resources for faculty, the ability to recruit faculty. There was also the issue of the lack of flexibility of departments to do many different things because there were insufficient numbers of faculty there.

BAM Did department heads ask to hire more faculty?
Simmons No one wanted to put the question of expanding the faculty on the table. They thought that was a closed book entirely. I think it had been communicated fairly clearly to faculty over the past years that there would not be any growth. But it occurred to me after all of these conversations that in fact the things that all of them insisted needed to be done couldn't be done without an expansion of the faculty. So I started looking at our size relative to our peers.

BAM What did you find?
Simmons What I discovered is that compared to our peers we have many more students per faculty member than the best of our competition. And that just confirmed my thinking. So many of the things that were problematic - addressing the developing subfields of many disciplines, addressing the need for increased diversity of faculty, addressing the need for smaller classes, addressing the need for our faculty to be able to go on leave more frequently - could be addressed by this size issue.

BAM If everyone thought the book was closed on this issue, how did you open it?
Simmons When I first raised the question, I think people were a little startled by it and concluded pretty quickly that it couldn't be done. The faculty and many in the administration felt that it wouldn't be feasible to do. But the more we studied this, the more we recognized that to do less than to grow the faculty would be to consign our students to student-faculty ratios higher than the competition, to improper class sizes, and to less diversity in the course work than they really needed. So over time, over some months, I think people got more and more accustomed to that idea.

BAM What convinced you that such faculty growth was possible?
Simmons The numbers. I had been secretary to the budget committee at Princeton, and I think because of that experience I had a sense of the kind of flexibility universities have in financial planning. So my first approach was to start asking questions about policy decisions. Step-by-step if you go through the policy decisions that we make on a routine basis and think about whether or not we could change our practices and policies without major detriment to departments, you could see how much money we could recoup. So we went through that exercise.

BAM What was the result?
Simmons Amazingly - and not with great difficulty, I must confess - in August we came up with a model. I had set certain conditions for the model. The first was that I didn't want an overly aggressive one. I wanted a reasonably safe financial model because, in view of the economic picture, I wanted us to have some room to make a mistake. The second thing that I looked for was the existence of a reserve fund, because I didn't think that anybody would accept an ambitious model without a safety net. I thought that Brown was a bit risk-averse, much more so than many of our peers. I was aware that we had a $40 million reserve that was not being used very well. I said the reserve ought to be a true reserve, instead of a quasi-endowment used to fund something in the operating budget.

BAM Why?
Simmons Because that way if we get into trouble we've got $40 million sitting there that will get us through until we can recover. That, I think, was probably the single biggest thing that allowed people to begin to feel comfortable with these initiatives, especially with the adoption of a need-blind admissions policy. It's a far bigger reserve than we probably need; having it there makes a big difference.

BAM Could we have adopted the need-blind policy sooner?
Simmons Yes, we could have done need-blind earlier, but we had to have the conviction that it was something that was a high enough priority for us. We needed to come to terms with that. I don't think the issue was solely financial. It was the issue of whether it was the priority for the University. Those are two different things. It was very hard to move in that direction as long as there was disagreement among so many about whether or not it was a priority for Brown and about whether or not it could be done and should be done.

BAM How will you be sure the University has enough money in its budget to prevent it from dipping into that $40 million reserve?
Simmons Fund-raising. I think we can reasonably assume that any environment in which we are being more productive - generating good ideas, hiring excellent faculty, doing excellent research - would be a much-improved fund-raising environment. We wrote in a modest additional amount in fund-raising as a possible source of revenue. And we were very modest in what we projected.

BAM How long can you maintain this faculty expansion without launching into a major capital campaign?
Simmons We anticipate being three years out from a campaign, although we also anticipate that almost immediately we will begin to see gains in fund-raising.

BAM So you're taking a conservative approach?
Simmons Now I think our plan is too conservative. We probably ought to have put more into the proposal than we actually did.

BAM What would you have added?
Simmons Well, there are many things, as you can imagine, that we didn't do. The students were very concerned that we were doing need-blind for domestic students only. They wanted a more aggressive financial-aid program. And certainly we're going to want to invest more money in financial aid once we see how need-blind develops. We need to reduce loan bills for students. We need to make sure we have adequate support for international students. In the graduate area we need a lot more resources for graduate students than we have. We need to be able to guarantee funding for the full period of time that they're students, either on fellowships or on research assistantships or teaching assistantships. But when a student accepts admission into our graduate program, we have to be able to say to him or her: "For the entire time you're here, you will have funding." That makes a huge difference in recruiting students.

BAM Anything else?
Simmons We need to get a better leave program under way for faculty. More frequent leaves for faculty is a long-term part of our plan. There's a very long list. There's also a considerable number of things we have to do in the area of residential life and housing for students, in the area of supporting activities on the campus, and in the area of athletics. We will eventually need to roll out plans for all of these things. Keep in mind the only thing this proposal is trying to do is to address immediate needs. It's not a plan; it's an attempt to bring us to where we need to be in some urgent areas as quickly as we can.

BAM What convinced you that your proposal is too conservative?
Simmons It's funny. People started out in the fall telling me it was nuts. The first meeting that I had with the senior administration - it was a pretty glum group of people, and they sat with their arms folded - most people thought what I was proposing was a pipe dream. By the time we went to the Brown Corporation in February, Corporation members were asking me, "Ruth, are you sure this is enough money? Are you sure we're being aggressive enough?" My response was "I think this is enough to get us started, but it's enough to get us started only."

BAM Because we have a lot of ground to make up?
Simmons When Neil Rudenstine, who was, until recently, the president of Harvard, spoke to the Corporation in February, he said, "The rest of us have been making investments of this kind for over a decade." So this is only the beginning.

BAM But a more aggressive plan would be more expensive. What makes you think Brown can afford it?
Simmons I think that in fund-raising the more you do that addresses the core of your enterprise, the more excited people are about it. That's just the way giving is. And so when I say to a donor, "We are about to make it possible for every single Brown student to sit around a small table in an intimate environment with other first-years and reach a high intellectual attainment in a safe environment in which they can get to know a professor, feel confident of expressing themselves, and say silly things without people deriding what they've said. That's the sort of intellectual experience that our students are going to be guaranteed." Anybody who's ever been a student at a university will say, "That's terrific. I remember when I was in this large course as a first-year and how terrified I was and how I really never got to say a word, and so on." It's just something people relate to. It's awfully hard to make a case for fund-raising when your institution is not growing, doing new things - because that's what people want to support. In fund-raising it's really the story that you have to tell. And I think we've got a lot to tell.

BAM How do your initiatives differ from other such proposals?
Simmons The reason that I wanted to do this project is because I thought it was unlike so much of what happens in academia. In the most succinct terms, our vision is that Brown as an academic institution cares about the quality of the education we offer our students. We want to improve on that quality of education and be competitive at the highest level. Period. How are we going to do that? Through excellent support for undergraduate students, excellent support for graduate students, excellent support for faculty. It's a very simple message.

BAM So this is really about cutting across all areas to elevate Brown to the next level?
Simmons Absolutely. Because in the end, the question is: what experience are students having here? If you're attracting the best minds, are you also putting them in the circumstances that will allow them to flourish? Or are we squandering the talent that they bring to us? That, fundamentally, is the question we have to worry about night and day.

BAM How do you ensure that you're not squandering it?
Simmons One of the things we know is that you build self-confidence over time through the kinds of conversations we're having now. We love to think that a student can go off in a dorm or elsewhere and have this kind of conversation all the time, but it's useful to have it in a structured environment in which you can actually teach students to do this. "That's a very interesting comment, Alice, but it would have helped if you had brought in this or that." Or, "When you make your presentation, perhaps it would be useful for you to do this and this rather than the approach that you're taking." A seminar is a safe environment in which to do that.

BAM How so?
Simmons When you're sitting across a table as a first-year student and you have somebody look at you and not let you off the hook, then you cannot hide. I think it's probably safe to say that the kind of thesis a student writes as a senior and the kind of self-confidence that student has as a thinker after leaving Brown is very much dependent on having that kind of opportunity early. You are telling that student: "You have the capacity to be an engaged thinker at a very high level, and you must use your intellect to achieve that." I had a conversation two days ago - I had a class over to the house for tea. This happened to be a poetry class. All these students were sitting there reading their poetry and submitting their poetry to the gaze of others - that is the most difficult thing we do as human beings. Some of us never learn to do that well. Because of the quality of mind that these students offer, we owe it to them to put them in environments where they safely learn that being challenged is the best thing that we do. Because through that experience we get better in what we do and we grow as human beings.

BAM How will you know whether your Initiatives for Academic Enrichment are succeeding?
Simmons First of all, we'll know immediately in terms of the variety of courses we're able to offer our students. That will appear immediately in the curriculum. We'll know in terms of the enrollments in classes - that won't happen immediately because we're rolling this out over several years, but certainly at the end of that period of time we'll know whether or not we've made a dent in the problem of our students not being able to get into classes. We'll know in terms of the productivity of our faculty. Because we have such exceptional scholars, as soon as we can make it possible for them to have more time [for scholarship], we're going to see the output from that. As soon as we start putting resources into supporting research, we'll get more scholarly articles, more books. As soon as we put more money into graduate students, we're going to see [them taking] less time to complete their degrees, and we're going to see stronger admission pools. As soon as we start offering more subfields in our academic disciplines, we're going to see our undergraduate students winning more prizes and awards in national competitions. And we'll know immediately in terms of our admissions. Do the people applying to Brown perceive it as a place that is investing heavily in the education that we offer them? If they know we're investing heavily in education, students who perhaps wouldn't have considered Brown will now consider Brown as an option.

BAM Your proposal depends fundamentally on attracting and retaining top faculty members. How do you go about identifying and recruiting them?
Simmons If I asked you who the best people are in your field, I think you could tell me right away. That's the nature of what we do as professionals. So, how will these positions get filled? By the faculty who are here. In addition, out of the hundred faculty members we want to to hire, we've taken twenty and targeted them for special hires. I have a particular interest in that pool.

BAM Can you give examples of such special hires?
Simmons Some will be for minority faculty. Others will be people who are so specialized they have some particular area of expertise that you really can't duplicate elsewhere. Sometimes you have to act quickly. The economics department might come in and say, "We've just heard Alan Greenspan is going to be stepping down. We want to offer him a position, but it's got to be done right now."

BAM Is Brown's financial condition in the state you expected it would be before you got here?
Simmons It's a lot better than what I expected. It's important to remember that people like Vartan Gregorian built a good financial base for the University. The money is there.

BAM But we have a smaller endowment than the other Ivy League schools, don't we?
Simmons We look a little foolish talking about how little money we have when so many people look at us and think how rich we are. Brown is a very wealthy institution. We're just making choices, and you can be very confused about making your choices if you lose sight of your purpose.

BAM How would you articulate our purpose?
Simmons Our purpose is to make sure our students have an excellent academic experience and to make sure the output of our faculty is what it should be - that's our job, that's the core of what we do. Let's not look at where we are in relationship to Harvard and Princeton. Let's look at ourselves in relationship to our mission and what we can accomplish with that mission.

BAM How do you view your own goals as president?
Simmons I'm not going to be the president for Brown that takes it off into a new direction. It's clear that what I need to do is to make sure we get back on course in terms of supporting the core of the university's mission, which is faculty support. I, in a way, regard that as my number-one priority: to make sure our students are well-supported and the faculty are well-supported. I truly believe that if we take care of that, we will take care of Brown and its future.

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Related Issue
May / June 2002