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Brown University Professor Denounces ‘McCarthy’ Witch Hunts

As Brown University publishes a proposal for a ‘pathway to diversity’ and its protesting students ‘focus on being alive,’ a professor denounces the protest culture engulfing the institution.

12.06.15 5:01 AM ET

It would be difficult to accuse Brown University of ignoring or dismissing the value of diversity on campus.

Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, recently oversaw the publication of a nearly 20-page draft proposal, titled Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan: An Action Plan for Brown University, allocating more than $100 million to implement a “concrete set of actions to… confront the issues of racism, power, privilege, inequity and injustice.”

The specific recommendations of the plan, which was published on Nov. 19, include doubling the number of faculty and graduate students from “historically underrepresented groups” (which effectively means ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities) by the 2024-2025 academic year and establishing “professional development workshops on race, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

However, despite allocating an impressive amount of financial and academic resources to promoting identity diversity, this plan has failed to quell the tide of student anger at Brown.

A group of protesting students declared Dec. 3 “Day of Reclamation.”

The Facebook group for the Day of Reclamation reveals a strong hostility to white voices and a desire to restrict their ability to share opinions.

Facebook

Facebook

“This is NOT a space for white students to be offering their opinions or the ‘issues’ they take with the consolidated, working list of demands,” one Brown University student posted. “People have been building on them for months and have very specific reasons for their asks, but it will never be your place to criticize them.”

The Facebook group also includes a video of students interrupting and shouting at Paxson during the Day of Reclamation.

“We have obligations like being in class, but we can’t focus on those things because we have to focus on being alive,” one female student says in the video.

“The university is saying they’re interested in hearing our trauma and forcing us to relive and tell you over and over again,” says another student.

One student in the video calls for the disarming of Brown University police in the Department of Public Safety (known as DPS). “If you say you value black students, when black students say ‘Disarm DPS,’ you would say ‘Okay, I’ll disarm DPS.’”

Paxson calmly counters, “Valuing people and agreeing with everything they demand are not the same thing,” a message that seems to be lost on the students.

When Brown University provost Richard Locke asks if they could have a conversation, as opposed to the shouting, he is met in the video with several shouts of “no.” A male student says, “Heterosexual white males have always dominated the space.”

When Locke appears to correct him and say he is not heterosexual, the student responds, “Well, homosexual, it don’t matter. White males are at the top of the hierarchy. Cis gender white males are at the top of the hierarchy.”

Even though he has critiques of the university’s plan, a Brown professor, speaking on condition of anonymity to The Daily Beast, noted that “it’s very clear the draft was developed in good faith.” That’s why he finds the interactions in the video “disturbing.”

“If you’re dealing with someone acting in good faith, and students are responding with rudeness, ultimatums, yelling, and screaming, it’s very discouraging,” he said.

In response to Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan, students released their own 14-page set of demands on the Day of Reclamation.

Their plan includes “increasing the black student population to 15.2 percent and the population of low-income students to 20 percent,” as the campus newspaper, Brown Daily Herald, reported.

The same article also noted that this demand to use quotas in college admission had already been ruled unconstitutional in 1978 with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

The seeming increase in outrage is the opposite of what the professor expected, having read the plan as incredibly generous to student demands.

“I badly misread the situation,” he said. “The lack of respect for the president, the provost, and the people trying to do what they can here, I’m sort of stunned by it. I thought the draft plan would quell the anger, and it’s sort of like they doubled-down.”


***

The Brown University professor I spoke to asked to remain anonymous not only for his sake, but for the sake of his faculty who are junior to him and depend on him maintaining a good relationship with the administration.

He reached out to me in November before Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan was released.

Outrage over minority oppression was already hitting a point unlike any he had witnessed during his more than 25 years at Brown (where this author’s brother is a student).

He recounted interacting with a student this past semester who argued that there was tremendous inequality for minorities at Brown.

She, herself, was not a minority, but told him that “you can’t understand because you haven’t walked in the shoes of the people who have experienced those [inequalities].”

When he countered with what he called “gentle pushback,” he said the student promptly “burst into tears.”

I asked him if he had ever such a tearful interaction with students before then. He said he had not.

“There’s a kind of paternalism that they [protesting students] do want. In that way, that bursting into tears felt like something a parent experiences when their exuberant kid wants something and you go, ‘I’m sorry. There are some reasons you can’t have that,’” he said.

He is not alone in noticing this paternalistic craving in many of the protests on campuses across the country.

As Robby Soave wrote for The Daily Beast, “In their desperation to elevate college administrators to the status of parental figures, today’s leftist students don’t even realize how weirdly conservative they are.”

Others might say a student bursting into tears when facing disagreement is as much proof of an impatient, childish shutdown as it is of the high emotional stakes surrounding the issue of minority oppression and perceived institutional racism at Brown, a topic that has been an especially potent lightning rod this fall semester.

In October, the Brown Daily Herald removed an op-ed in defense of Columbus Day after students decried it as culturally insensitive.

While some Brown students and faculty expressed concerns over freedom of speech on campus, the larger thrust of outrage was focused on the perceived subjugation of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities on campus.

In November, days after protests over campus racism rocked the University of Missouri, Geovanni Cuevas, a Latino Dartmouth student visiting Brown for the Latinx Ivy League Conference, alleged a DPS officer assaulted him when he entered a building he was told he could not access.

This sparked an uprising against Paxson and the administration with students demanding she disarm the DPS while cursing and interrupting her.

A few days later, nearly 70 faculty members signed a letter, denouncing the “savage inequalities of race, class, gender and sex” that plagued student life.

They also criticized those who brought free-speech concerns over the removal of the Brown Daily Herald Columbus Day op-ed. They stated the removal was not a violation of freedom of speech, but “an act of self defense.”

To the anonymous professor, Brown has transformed into a hostile academic culture hyper-ready to attack anyone as racists if they do not support protesting students.

The mood, he said, is akin to that during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” hunt for communists.

“I think there’s a looking around to find injustices whether or not they exist,” he said. “That’s what feels like McCarthyism. You’re looking for communists, whether or not they’re there. You’re determined to find some. That’s what McCarthy was doing. It does feel like people are looking for things whether or not they’re there.”

The professor also felt fewer professors are pushing back publicly at Brown than at other Ivy League schools faced with recent student protests.

He declined to predict what percentage of Brown faculty share his concerns, but he senses from conversations with some of his colleagues that professors are fearful of speaking out about their critiques of the diversity and inclusion plan or the manner of the student protests.

“The conversations with other faculty have been, ‘Gee, there’s been some faculty pushback at Yale and Princeton, and there’s been none here.’ There’s something about the environment here that people are self-censoring so strongly that people aren’t speaking out.”

At the same time, this hunt for injustice conducted in the name of promoting diversity and inclusion has overshadowed what this professor views as pressing concerns about intellectual diversity at Brown.

“If we’re going to have a serious conversation about diversity, it should include intellectual diversity, ideological diversity,” he said. To him, the plan for diversity and inclusion “absolutely doesn’t.”

From the professor’s view, the university’s plan offers “what I would call, ironically, a narrow definition of inclusion.” He cited two specific groups that are not mentioned.

Surprisingly enough, the first was athletes. Despite the stereotype that jocks are the big men on campus, this professor described a stigma toward them at Brown.

“It’s pretty common for athletes at Brown to say they try to disguise the fact they’re athletes because they don’t want to be stereotyped,” he said. “They don’t want their professor to know. They may not even want their friends to know. How included in our community are they?”

The other group is less surprising, considering Brown’s liberal, some would say “hippie,” reputation: conservative students.

“What’s this place called out for all the time? All the professors are liberal Democrats,” the professor said. “If you talked to conservative students who go here, I think they feel very stifled in class, by their peers and by their professors.”

He mentioned that a fellow faculty member expressed concern that a group of Republican students who set up a table on the main green were being called names and harassed for expressing their views.

“It was the kind of thing that if you reversed the role, and people were doing that to any number of liberal groups, it would be a campus scandal,” the professor said. “We would be having a meeting about how terrible this is and what can we do.”

But according to this professor, securing intellectual diversity on Brown’s campus is not a pressing concern for administrators.

“I’ve never gotten the sense that anyone in the administration worries about it. I think a lot of liberal professors roll their eyes at this idea.”

 

***

More disconcerting than the nature and tone of recent protests to this professor is the lack of concern over freedom of speech—or what he referred to as “freedom of expression”—on campus.

“‘Freedom of speech’ is a little tough,” he said. ”It’s not the perfect phrase to use, partly because we’re a private institution and we’re not talking about government action. I like to use ‘freedom of expression.’ Universities are supposed to be places of freedom of expression.”

The strong emotions, high sensitivity, and overwhelming desire for immediate administrative changes in regards to the treatment of “historically underrepresented groups” appears to override freedom of expression and open dialogue on campus.

Concerns about freedom of speech on Brown’s campus also came up when I interviewed students about the controversial Columbus Day op-ed.

“I think freedom of speech in general has a lot of problems because of power dynamics, just racially and otherwise, so you have to be cautious,” sophomore Sierra Edd said.

The professor says his concerns about freedom of expression at Brown went back further than this fall.

In October 2013, Brown University students effectively prevented then-New York City police chief Ray Kelly from speaking after he had been explicitly invited to be part of a lecture series organized by Brown’s Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions.

“I knew people were organizing to protest, and I was all for that,” the professor said. “The idea that people were outside picketing, I thought, ‘Great! This is America. Picket. Let him know people here don’t like him, don’t like his views.’ No one objected to the picketing.”

Instead, student protesters booed and shouted to the point Kelly could not proceed with his speech.

“After about a half-hour of attempts to continue the lecture, administrators decided to cancel the event,” the Brown Daily Herald reported at the time.

“There are ways to protest a person without shutting down their speech,” the professor said. While he was disappointed in the students, he was alarmed that more professors weren’t upset.

Some faculty “thought it was absolutely appropriate and acceptable that his ability to express his views as an invited speaker, that shutting that down, was OK,” the professor said. “In my whole time here that was the first time faculty endorsed a view that does restrict free expression.”

The professor declined to specifically name faculty who supported this viewpoint in an on-the-record conversation.

During and since the Ray Kelly incident, the professor said he has seen an increase of what he called “harm-based language” from students, claiming that certain talks or opinions would hurt or endanger them.

“There were people in connection with Ray Kelly who said they didn’t feel ‘safe’ sitting in the auditorium where he was talking,” the professor said. “Now, to me, that’s just a misuse of the word ‘safe.’ I do not believe those people thought their physical safety was in jeopardy.”

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As an outside observer, there’s something curious about witnessing Paxson and the Brown administration’s seeming eagerness to appease students.

Both the anger from students and the administration’s willingness to allocate major funds to accommodate them is especially surprising since Brown already provides significant financial aid.

“[From the students’ reaction] you would think Brown had done nothing and that cries for change had gone unrecognized for years, and I just don’t think that’s the case,” the professor said.

According to data shared with The Daily Beast from Brown’s Office for Public Affairs and University Relations, for financial year 2016, 44 percent of undergraduates received some form of financial aid, with a total of $112.5 million spent by the university on their tuition.

Over the last five years, the percent of undergraduates receiving some form of financial aid has ranged between 42 and 44 percent.

For the current freshmen, the class of 2019, 30 percent of students have “no expected parental contribution from income.” In other words, their families are not expected to pay at all for their tuition at Brown.

I asked the professor why he thought Paxson and the administration appeared to be bending so fast.

“It seems like they’re really worried about having a significant protest, like they don’t want the administration building taken over,” he said. “They don’t want some national event that would embarrass Brown.

“There’s a lot of attention paid to public relations. I’ve seen that change over the last 10 years. The university does a lot more PR than it ever used to.”


***

During the course of our conversations, the professor stressed that there are elements of the proposed changes in the Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan that he applauded, especially more resources for students who are the first generation in their family to attend college.

“They get a full ride, and then when they need to buy winter clothes, that’s not covered,” he said. “How do they pay for books? They’re expected to come up with the money. This plan is going to do more for those students, and I think that’s great.”

But these positives were negated by other measures that, for the professor, signified a dramatic departure from the academic ethos at Brown.

He pointed out a line at the beginning of the plan acknowledging concerns about intellectual diversity, or a lack thereof: “Absent diversity, an inclusive campus may become a homogenous intellectual echo chamber.”

The professor is not convinced that the plan addressed it. “I don’t see anything in that plan that would help make sure that echo chamber doesn’t happen. What? Hiring more and more people who think alike and have the same agenda?”

The professor is also concerned by the calls to find ways to change the curriculum to “more fully engage issues of race, ethnicity, and identity.”

There is also a specific proposal within the president’s plan to double the number of sophomore seminars “related to issues of power, privilege, inequality, and social justice.”

According to the professor, in the many years he has been at Brown, he has never been mandated by the administration to teach certain courses or topics.

The Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan plan argues that these changes in curricula can occur organically with its commitment to hiring more faculty who are minorities. It states: “As the number of faculty and postdocs who conduct research and teach on these issues grows, we will expand the number of seminars that are offered.”

But the professor is less certain that these changes will unfold in a natural fashion.

“I am worried about creating courses for the sake of creating them. I’m worried that the academic rigor is giving way to these other values that are diluting our mission,” he said.

“I’m worried about the reputation and quality of the university.”