An Open Letter to the Class of 2011

By Elliott Negin ’76 / May/June 2011
June 10th, 2011

Congratulations. After four years of sweating out papers and cramming for exams, you’ve earned the right to walk through the Van Wickle Gates and … move back in with your parents?

That’s right. A recent survey of new college grads found that 85 percent of you are so saddled with debt and unlikely to find a job that you’re packing up your dorm rooms and going home.

I know this is cold comfort, but you’re not the first class to have the misfortune of graduating in bad economic times. Your plight brings back memories of my graduation thirty-five years ago. Like you, my classmates and I were walking smack into an uncertain future.

The parallels between then and now are striking. And, as it turns out, the lessons we learned when we were in school are still relevant today. I talked about them in the Commencement speech I gave at Brown in June 1976.

The first lesson: we too often make a faulty distinction between college and the real world. Brown is the real world. The second lesson: there are two very different ways to respond to what I called “domination”—our institutions’ undemocratic tendency to exclude workers and citizens from participating in decisions that directly affect their lives.

The outlook in 1976 looked a lot like today. Just a year before, the country had finally extricated itself from a ten-year unpopular and unnecessary war that put a huge strain on the economy. Industrial output had rebounded from a slump in 1974 and corporate profits were up, but the recovery was jobless, and states and municipalities—and colleges—were facing major deficits.

“Faith in the future isn’t as strong as it was a few years ago,” I told my classmates, “and despite the reassurances we get from our public officials that our economy will soon stabilize, the quality of life in America appears to be declining. Boom times are over, and a college degree no longer guarantees us a blank check for the future.”

We eventually found jobs, but what kind? Back in 1976, I predicted: “More often than not we will find ourselves in basically undemocratic, hierarchical institutions that are resistant to change. These institutions are characterized by authoritarian control from above, and those who are not in the upper reaches of the hierarchy are excluded from the decisionmaking process.”

How did Brown prepare us for that future? By providing a taste of it.

For example, anti-union sentiment—which is much worse today—was alive and well at Brown in the mid-1970s. When Brown librarians, who were paid less than their counterparts at many other Northeast colleges, wanted to form a union, the University refused to negotiate. In support, students organized “study-ins” in University Hall. For days on end, hundreds of students clogged the hallways. Ultimately, the university recognized the union, which is still there protecting the workers’ interests. Brown students, too, are still vigilant. Just last fall, you rallied in support of the union when the university, in contract negotiations, proposed major cuts in health benefits. A few weeks later, the two sides reached a compromise.

Likewise, in the same way that Republicans today are flouting public opinion and proposing to phase out Medicare as a part of their deficit reduction plan, a number of financially strapped colleges were tone-deaf to what their constituents—their students—wanted when they announced budget cutbacks in the spring of 1975.

Those announcements triggered protests at a number of schools. In the Northeast, students occupied a building at Brandeis, demonstrated at City University in New York, and boycotted classes at Brown. When Brown rejected demands to reduce cuts and give undergraduates a voice in the process, black and Latino students—seeing the school drop its commitment to recruit more minority students and faculty—took over University Hall. A few days later, the school agreed to most of their demands. And over the last three decades, Brown has honored that agreement.

Our experience on campus—coupled with the example set by the civil rights, women’s and anti-war movements—taught us there are two fundamental ways to respond to domination.

The first, I explained that June morning, is the “individual survival” response. One person alone has little chance against an institution, so it makes sense to keep your head down and accept the status quo.

The second and more fruitful way is a collective, community response. We found out first-hand that united action can lead to positive change. Not always, of course, because institutions do not share, let alone relinquish, power easily. But it is clear that strength comes in numbers – be it in school, the workplace, the voting booth, or the streets.

Some 200 years before I gave that speech, Benjamin Franklin said: “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” I would go further: Citizens sometimes have the responsibility to defy authority. Certainly there are significant risks, but if we learned anything during our four years at Brown, it’s that democracy is not a spectator sport.

Congratulations again, class of 2011, and good luck.

Elliott Negin is media director for a national nonprofit science advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

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May/June 2011