Sudden Impact

By Norman Boucher / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
The resignation of President E. Gordon Gee in February hit with a force that sent this normally imperturbable campus scrambling for perspective. As detailed in this month’s cover story , Gee’s decision to leave Brown has produced aftershocks that are likely to be felt on College Hill for some time.

As a member of the Brown community, I, like so many students, faculty members, and staffers, found myself reacting to the news with a complicated mix of emotions that eventually settled into an unshakable dismay. But as the editor of a magazine a week-and-a-half away from going to the printer, I also knew we had work to do in trying to find a way to explain honestly and coherently what had happened and what, at this early stage, the resignation is likely to mean.

And so the BAM staff ­ for whose tireless dedication I am grateful every day ­ scrambled to report the rapidly unfolding events of the week and to find the words and images that would best capture their texture. Literally running around campus, I quickly understood that in front of me was one of the most extraordinary stories I have witnessed in twenty years of writing for magazines.

It developed in two stages. First came the raw emotion. Early in the week of February 6, everyone on campus seemed distracted by feelings of anger and betrayal, as if the president’s true feelings about the University had finally been revealed. (Confronted with this perception, an equally passionate Gee insisted that his decision to leave was not a criticism of Brown but a personal recognition on his part that it was not the right place for him.)

The second stage of reaction, I believe, was more interesting, as well as more revealing. The University community, both on and off campus, is a smart, incisive, and contentious group, so much so that on some days no one around here seems to agree with anyone about anything. But as first became apparent at Monday’s emergency faculty meeting, when there’s a perceived threat to Brown, even the most contrary among us wants to know how to help.

As the week progressed, a sense of unity, even of closeness, developed on campus. It was like watching a family react to a crisis by candidly discussing the situation while putting aside differences, temporarily at least, to ensure that what it valued most was safe.

For a few days, everyone was equal at Brown. There was the extraordinary sight of the faculty pulling together with the Corporation, as represented at Monday’s emergency faculty meeting by Chancellor Stephen Robert ­ two groups whose genetic makeup seems generally to rarely overlap. At an open forum on Wednesday night, there were the long lines of students sitting in the aisles of the Salomon auditorium, each waiting his or her turn to step up to a microphone and address a panel of Corporation members and senior administrators about the qualifications of the next president of Brown. Again and again during the week, interviews that I thought would last fifteen minutes turned into hour-long conversations characterized by probing and, at times, very personal analysis.

It’s been said that crisis reveals character, and the resignation of now former President Gee reveals a great deal about Brown’s. Thanks to the Stephen Robert Initiative for the Study of Values, an ongoing look at the the role of ethics and morals in our lives, talk about the subject is on the rise at the University. For a week in February, talk became action. In the wake of Gee’s resignation, values such as honesty, commitment, unity, and responsibility were plain to see in classes, auditoriums, and classrooms all around campus. After all, this is Brown.

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March / April 2000