Some Assembly Required

By Norman Boucher / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Electrifying is not a word generally used to describe meetings of the Brown Corporation, but an undeniable sense of excitement followed its February 2002 gathering. President Ruth J. Simmons’s so-called Initiatives for Academic Enrichment promised nothing less than historic change for the University, and the trustees emerged from the weekend session convinced they had seen a blueprint for the next phase of Brown’s development, a blueprint that came complete with sensible economic projections, well-crafted strategic goals, and all the other elements of a workable plan for organizational change. Go for it, they said.

Over the next several months, Simmons, aided by Executive Vice President for Planning Richard Spies, completed a new senior management team that included a new provost (Robert J. Zimmer, the vice president for research and for the Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago), a new executive vice president for finance and administration (Elizabeth Huidekoper, vice president of finance at Harvard), a new vice president for computing and information services (Ellen Waite-Franzen, vice president for information services at the University of Richmond), a new senior vice president for advancement (Ronald Vanden Dorpel ’71 A.M., who as vice president for university development at Northwestern had just completed a $1.4 billion fund-raising campaign), a new dean of the Graduate School (University Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature Karen Newman), and a new vice president for research (professor and computer-science-department cofounder Andries van Dam).

What these administrators share is a dedication to implementing Simmons’s initiatives, and given the short time most of them have been in their jobs, the progress they’ve made is startling. Since the 2002 Corporation meeting the Simmons administration has begun the process of hiring 100 new faculty members and has brought in enough visiting and new professors to add 140 course offerings and begin lowering the student-faculty ratio. The Simmons team has also completed an external review of the Brown Medical School, has undertaken a new master plan for the physical campus with the help of a nationally known architect and planner, has announced the formation of several new multidisciplinary centers, has overhauled the way the faculty governs itself and interacts with the administration, and has begun a search for a new administrator of campus diversity.

As Simmons herself points out in the following interview, this is more than window dressing. Underlying the changes is a soup-to-nuts review of how Brown makes decisions and carries them out. It’s long been the view of many on campus that the University has been hampered for years by a bureaucratic inertia that has stymied the sort of flexibility that any organization needs to take advantage of rapidly changing conditions. Higher education in general, and the Ivy League in particular, is engaged in brutal competition for students, scholars, and researchers, and the danger is that institutions unable to compete will lapse into mediocrity. In her own words, Simmons’s aim has been to hit the fast-forward button. She has taken on the kind of long-overdue structural change that may be one of her lasting legacies at Brown. Her initiatives attempt to answer a longtime paradoxical question: how do you strengthen Brown without jeopardizing its size or its first-rate undergraduate teaching?

Unfortunately for the University, Simmons’s ambition has run smack into a severe economic slowdown. With the University’s endowment growing more slowly than anticipated and with families in increasing need of financial aid, funding for Simmons’s initiatives is in shorter supply than she’d planned. In response, she has instituted such measures as a hiring freeze for nonfaculty positions on campus, and she reluctantly admits that the pace of change may be temporarily slowed.

But only temporarily. In a hopeful sign, the Brown Annual Fund last year raised $2 million more than it had the year before, and despite a national downturn in philanthropy, Simmons believes that a rise in alumni contributions can help the University both weather the current economic slump and help lay the groundwork for a capital campaign. Chancellor Stephen Robert ’62, Chancellor Emeritus Artemis A.W. Joukowsky ’55 and his family, and an anonymous donor have recently issued challenge grants to increase donations even further.

So how is Simmons faring? In late March she sat down with the BAM to review the past year.

BAMThe Brown Corporation approved your Initiatives for Academic Enrichment a little more than a year ago. What’s your view of the progress you’ve made since then?

SIMMONS As usual for anything with a reach this broad, it’s hard to see what’s been accomplished because we’re doing so many things. When I envisioned this whole process I saw it as something Brown needed to do from bottom to top. We could not afford to simply adorn the University in a new way; we had to go deeper than that and look at our efficiency, at our structure, at the way we make decisions, at virtually every aspect of the University.

So what have we done a year and a half later? Well, miraculously the faculty have completely changed the faculty-governance system.

BAM Could you explain what that is and why it’s important?

SIMMONS Yes. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t understand faculty governance how difficult it is to completely change and how revolutionary it is to do it. Universities have a shared governance system, which means that we believe the direction of the University should be set with the participation of staff, faculty, students, and administration, as well as alumni. Inevitably when we make decisions our obligation is to seek broad discussion and deliberation and to arrive at a decision that is the best possible.

So when I say that the governance system has changed, what do I mean? I mean that the faculty have from top to bottom changed their committees and the way that they function and relate to the administration. They have examined the composition of their committees; they have thought about how the faculty and the University can be better served and make better decisions. They’ve eliminated a large number of committees and tried to give us committees that will be able to act more quickly.

BAM Why is acting more quickly so important?

SIMMONS Because part of the difficulty for Brown over the years has been that everything took so long to implement. Today you simply can’t be as good as your competition if you don’t make decisions and move on.

BAM Is that why you created a new office of research, for example, and appointed longtime computer-science professor Andy van Dam to head it as vice president for research?

SIMMONS Yes. Faculty have to have the kind of assistance that allows them to get research grants into agencies and to get that done quickly. For example, when a faculty member is submitting a research grant, there needs to be some guarantee of University participation in the budget. If that ball is bounced around for a very long time, our departments can’t be competitive.

BAM Your initiatives also called for hiring 100 faculty over five years. How is that progressing?

SIMMONS We’ve gotten the first part of the faculty hiring under way, and we’re now at a point where we’re very actively recruiting people. And I must say it’s terrific to see incredible people coming and looking at Brown and saying they want to be a part of this University. And the fact that they are coming from the best places in the country and abroad tells us that we needed something with the sweep of this kind of program to provide proof that Brown was going to be the kind of place in the future that was desirable for the best people.

BAM Are we getting our first picks?

SIMMONS In many cases, yes, we are. I’m satisfied that we are now able to provide better support for faculty. There are a lot of things that have happened in that regard. [Vice President for Computing and Information Services] Ellen Waite-Franzen has been working to improve computing, and I think she’s done a terrific job in a very short period of time.

BAM What about the physical space for all these new faculty hires?

SIMMONS We’ve had a master planner come in who’s given us some ideas about how we will be able to expand over the next twenty years. The paralysis about what we might do from a physical standpoint is coming to an end, and that’s an enormous accomplishment for us.

BAM The planner you’re referring to is the New York City architect Frances Halsband, who has submitted recommendations for Brown’s physical growth. Can you describe some of her specific recommendations?

SIMMONS Well, as in all planning, there’ve been lots of surprises. It sort of reminds me that when you first call in your architect to redo your house and you describe what you need, the architect comes back with something that you never even imagined would be possible in the little place you live in. That’s what a planner does. They see the environment and physical space in very different ways from the novice. So what Frances Halsband has done is to help us understand what is possible for us to do in the space that we see every day and can’t even imagine looking different.

So, what are some of the ideas? She actually has given us ideas for how we can gain more undergraduate beds in existing undergraduate complexes, and I don’t think we ever thought that those complexes could be expanded. She has given us ideas for how to make our campus more beautiful: when we walk from one end of the campus to the other, our walk is filled with dumpsters and parking spaces; she is suggesting that we should make that walk pleasant. And so Pembroke walk [from Pembroke campus to Lincoln Field] is a concept that she has focused on for making a beautiful connection between these historic bookends of the campus. In my view that’s one of the most exciting ideas she’s come up with.

She’s looked at the question of campus gathering space, whether that’s a campus center or something else. She’s altogether said that really we could add about 500,000 square feet of building space to the existing campus. That would give some initial room for growth.

BAM Lowering the student-faculty ratio was another goal you identified in last year’s plan. Has it come down?

SIMMONS Anytime you hold the number of students steady and you add faculty, you’re reducing the student-faculty ratio. We have 140 new courses this year, and the kind of anecdotal information I have from students is that they are very happy with the focus we have put on making these additional courses available. So the additional faculty will certainly begin to lower that student-faculty ratio, but we’re nowhere near where we have to be. We’ve got to continue to chip away at that until we are down closer to nine to one or lower, which is where the best places are.

BAM You also added freshman seminars this past year. What’s been the reaction to them?

SIMMONS The first-year seminars, I think, have been terrific, and the idea is to double the number for next year and beyond. That’s another success.

BAM You seem to be determined to expand these programs quickly.

SIMMONS The things that we’re doing are in essence fast-forwarding a lot of different areas, because we have been in the past rather slow to adopt some of the best pedagogical strategies in the country. So instead of doing only two or three first-year seminars each year, we moved up to forty of them very quickly. Similarly, most campuses grow by adding incrementally to the faculty over a long period of time—and we’re dropping 100 faculty into the mix on a very short horizon.

BAM Can Brown grow too much and too quickly?

SIMMONS We worry a lot about that and about maintaining what Brown is, even with all of that change.

BAM You’ve said publicly that if Brown doesn’t grow it will die. What did you mean by that?

SIMMONS There are academic fields that are present today that the faculty would not have even thought about thirty years ago. As a consequence, if you don’t grow the faculty, you’re first of all not taking advantage of all those new areas.

Here’s a time-honored truth in the world of faculty hiring: many universities deliberately keep a certain number of spaces in a department for junior people. It’s considered very bad when a department has all senior people. Knowledge is developing so rapidly that the students who are coming out of graduate programs and who are doing thesis work are seen as being closest to the developments in the field. It’s important for a department to have access to those new minds that come in seeing things a different way. This has the effect on a department of keeping it vital, keeping it forward-looking and not backward-looking.

BAM So is expanding the faculty about intellectual refreshment in addition to lowering the student-faculty ratio?

SIMMONS Yes, exactly. You’ve got to have a constant enriched mixture of different approaches, different technologies, different generations, different cultures, all interacting to enrich knowledge in a completely different way.

BAM All of these initiatives—hiring more faculty, improving the computing infrastructure, building new buildings, and renovating old ones—are expensive. How has the recent economic downturn affected your plans?

SIMMONS It’s very hard. But I feel relieved that we are engaged in planning. Because when you have the kind of economy that we have today, and you’re reacting to the shortfalls in a knee-jerk way, you get some very bad results. Having the planning process allows us to have a focus—that makes it clearer what we should do in a time like this. If our goal is academic enrichment and we have to make cuts, we make cuts in the appropriate place. If we have to make changes, we make changes in the appropriate way. So I guess to me the economy, the state of the economy, makes it acutely plain that if you’re not planning comprehensively, you’re going to do something very destructive to your mission. There will be some things that we probably won’t be able to do as a result of the economy; but I think when the economy comes back, we’re going to be in a much stronger position because we have a coherent approach.

BAM But if money is tight—and the current nonfaculty hiring freeze on campus shows that it is—why won’t your plans be derailed?

SIMMONS When I first got to Brown and I said, “Here are the things I think we need to do,” most people said they could never be done. Why? “Because of course the Corporation would never approve them,” they said. So part of our strategy was to design a set of changes in a way that allowed us to curtail some things in the event that there were significant changes in the economic picture. I had been advised that the Corporation might be more inclined to approve a plan that had an exit strategy. So we designed it with exit strategies. Now it turns out that it was a very useful thing to have done.

BAM What happens if economic conditions actually force you to implement one of these exit strategies?

SIMMONS Even if we have to forestall some of the things we intended to do, in a year’s time I think we’ll see how far-reaching what we are doing actually is. You see, the important thing about planning is that it allows you to maximize what you can do with even your existing assets. And we at Brown had not been doing that well enough. So even if we took away all of the additional things, the mere fact that we’re planning better to maximize what we were already doing means we’d still be ahead.

So I’m probably not as concerned as most people about the state of the economy, because I think we are much more fit, I think we are more agile, and I think we’re making better decisions, and I think we are doing new things.

BAM Why hasn’t Brown done this before?

SIMMONS I don’t think Brown was organized to do those things. You know, organization accounts for considerably more than most people give it credit for. Frankly, in my view it’s far more important than anything else we’re doing. Because it’s more lasting.

BAM You’ve recently announced two academic expansions: the creation of new multidisciplinary centers and of new collaborations with the Woods Hole marine biological laboratory and RISD. What’s the strategy behind these moves?

SIMMONS Even when Brown adds 100 or more faculty, it’s still going to be a small university. Our size facilitates collaboration. In the recent reviews that we’ve had of our academic programs, the outside experts all said the same thing: what they find most remarkable about Brown is that multidisciplinary collaboration is much more robust here than it is in most places. So we started exploring how we might take this one step further. We naturally started to ask, What are the relationships that would be easiest and most fertile to explore? And the idea of Woods Hole arose, and of new relationships with RISD.

There was also the idea that we have various centers here already that we’re not drawing from fully. So we really started with the existing structures, taking things we’re already doing and pushing them together, pushing them together because we are so good at making these combinations work. So we came up with this new idea of putting American studies together with the center for race and ethnicity and having combinations with environmental science and environmental justice. Or looking at the whole notion of computational biology and the kinds of things you could put together with engineering and medicine and applied mathematics. As I said, planning is really about using what you have more effectively as well as enriching what you have.

BAM One of the hot-button issues in Providence is the tax-exempt status of educational institutions and hospitals. There’s even some talk about removing that status to get more income from places like Brown. What’s your response?

SIMMONS A great university does not write checks to local government because [that government has] not been able to manage its resources. The notion of that is so beyond anything that I can comprehend. At the same time, we have students, we use resources in the city, and it may well be that it’s appropriate to pay for some of the resources that we use. But I would hope that people reject the idea of raiding tax-exempt institutions at the will of successive politicians. That sounds harsh, and I mean it to sound harsh, because there is no better benefit that we can give to the city and the state of Rhode Island than to be a strong university.

So what do I think we should do? I think we should certainly be good citizens. I think we should explore with the city how to help the city. But I think we should fight any effort to change the fundamental nature of the University. Keep in mind that universities are here for centuries; the longer term is what we do best. The planning process that we’re undergoing now is evidence of that; we are spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about what Brown should be in fifty years. I don’t think cities do that. I don’t think states generally do that. You can understand why that happens: there are pressing issues, pressing issues of housing, pressing issues of meeting the city payroll, pressing issues of snow removal. So the tendency for those who are responsible for managing cities is to focus on the immediate. But frankly, if you’re looking at economic growth, you have to focus on the longer term, and it’s the longer term that I hope that the cities will look to universities to help them do.

BAM This fall’s incoming class will be Brown’s first to be admitted need-blind. Yet other financial-aid students are being asked to take on a greater loan burden. How do you reconcile these two developments?

SIMMONS It’s hard. I think fundamentally when we went need-blind we didn’t know the economy really would sink in the way that it has. Families now are in more severe difficulty, and therefore they have higher need. So that’s been a surprise. One thing that naturally we talk about is, should we then not be need-blind? I think the consensus is that need-blind is so important that we should still do it even if it means we have to change the structure of financial aid. It’s very unpalatable, but since need-blind really has to do with academic enrichment, with the kind of university we will be, it seemed important to do it. My hope is that we will raise enough money to actually be able to bring those loan levels back down. So my expectation is that it’s a temporary problem for us.

BAM How can alumni help?

SIMMONS What I’ve been saying is that when they wake up in the morning they should think about the Brown Annual Fund first. Getting alumni in the habit of making Brown a part of their philanthropy every single year is extremely important. We’ve got to educate our alums to the fact that this is why our peers have done so well: alums have thought of them as part of their charitable giving every year. The Annual Fund is the foundation of every plan we have for improving our fund-raising. That’s what we’re asking people to do: to give. Everybody can give some amount every year. I give to about ten places, and what I try to remember is to give every year. If the amount that I can give in a given year goes down, it goes down because I have to manage within the context of my resources. But I still give every year.

Norman Boucher is editor of the BAM.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 2003