The Political Truth

By Chad Galts / March / April 1998
December 28th, 2007
If Gordon Gee imagined he'd be leaving state politics behind him at Ohio State, his first day on the job as Brown's president showed him otherwise. His welcome at University Hall included angry phone calls from Rhode Island legislators and faculty members, all scrambling for cover. Gee, who was so effective at Ohio politics that rumors swirled he might be persuaded to run for governor, took all the hoopla in stride. "This type of thing happened three, four, five times a week at Ohio State," he says.

To others on campus, however, the tempest was a revealing case study in how volatile the mix of partisan politics and academic research can become. The focus of Gee's first controversy was a report issued by Rhode Island Secretary of State James Langevin titled "Access Denied: Chaos, Confusion, and Closed Doors." The result of a collaboration between members of Langevin's staff and a group of Brown students and professors, the study alleged that 52 percent of the meetings held by state legislative committees during the previous session had violated the state's open government laws. What began as a public-policy research exercise for three Brown students working in the secretary of state's office was immediately transformed into a polemical sparring match. Calling the report "an abomination" and "an outrageous slander," state legislators were, in the words of House majority leader George Caruolo, "very, very surprised that Brown University would put its name on a piece of work like this."

Particularly irksome to legislators - who were already defensive about Rhode Island's longstanding reputation as a setting for political scandal and corruption - were the report's attention-grabbing conclusions and packaging. Each legislative committee was assigned a letter grade for its compliance with the law, and each committee found in violation was assessed a hypothetical fine. On the report's cover the words ACCESS DENIED were emblazoned in red over the closed door of a hearing room. The merit of the research contained in the report was soon obscured by the perception that it was a smoke screen for a political attack.

In part, the controversy was a question of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. Legislators resented the report's failure to mention that committee meetings now are far more open than they were before the state's open-meeting law was passed in 1976, a criticism accepted as valid by Ross Cheit, the associate professor of political science and public policy who advised the students in their research. "A lot of public-policy research tends to be focused on what's called `existential distress,'" Cheit says: "Who's hurting right here, now. If you do that to the exclusion of `How come?' and `How did we get here?' you can get into trouble."

For his part, Langevin is less interested in past conditions than in getting a grip on how things are now. "This wasn't a comparative analysis of what happened twenty years ago," he says. "Yes, things are better. But we didn't make up the numbers; they are what they are." Langevin admits that, had the report been more comparative, legislators' reactions "may not have been as visceral"; but he does not regret his office's decision to use letter grades and fines as "a way of helping to quantify the degree of the problem."

Cheit, who recruited the students - Seth Andrew '00, Kathleen Campbell '99, and Robert Taylor '99 - for Langevin from one of his political science classes, offered advice but did not coauthor the report. "If this had been a coauthorship," he says, "it would have come out very differently. I was [the students'] advisor, but they didn't always take my advice." The students, he says, came to him enthusiastic about the idea of grading and fining the committees in the report. "I said, `Great - work it into the text,'" Cheit explains. To Seth Andrew, the report was as much about politics as academic research. "A lot of public policy studies sit on shelves in the Library of Congress and collect dust," Andrew said at a campus forum on the controversy. "We wanted to change public policy, and we feel confident that we did. Attention was drawn to the study through the politics of the media. This report is a great example of where the politics meets the policy."

The controversy, however, is more complicated than whether three students wittingly or unwittingly helped a politically ambitious secretary of state score points with the public. At issue, Gee emphasizes, is Brown's reputation as a source of objective data. "[The report] was packaged in a deliberately partisan, political fashion," he says. "Brown needs to maintain its academic credibility."

But Gee also believes that Brown must play a role as a citizen of Providence and of Rhode Island. As a private institution, Brown's budget is not reviewed by the state legislature, so it has no interest in either attacking or whitewashing how that government body works. It can strike an objective note in a chorus of partisan voices. "We intend to be part of the public policy debate with the ideas coming out of our libraries and laboratories," Gee says. "The quality of Brown will be affected by the quality of life in this city." At the same time, he adds, "We need to make certain that others do not use us for their political purposes."

Striking that balance is key. The case of "Access Denied" was further confused because the students were working as paid interns for the secretary of state under the auspices of the University's A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. Was their obligation to the conventions of academic research or to helping their boss frame that research in provocative terms so he could profit from a "clean-government" campaign? In the end, the Taubman Center's name was on the cover of "Access Denied" because the University has no specific policy dictating the appropriate use of its name - nor, Gee adds, should it. "We could get catatonic about this," he says. "Of the thousands of books, papers, and other documents produced by this University every year, you're talking about three or four items."

Meanwhile, when asked about his reaction to his first day in office, Gee smiles. "To me this was just a welcome to the new institution," he says, "with the same old issues."

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March / April 1998