PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Spending $100 million on an ambitious diversity plan over the next decade might seem like a far-fetched idea for most colleges and universities.
But Brown University isn’t exactly any university.
The Ivy League school, nestled away in the affluent Providence neighborhood of College Hill, is one of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions.
Despite its long and complicated history with race relations — including a public admission in 2006 that the university benefited in its early years from funds made from the slave trade — the diversity initiative pledge is largely the result of sustained student protests recently mounted by minority students.
“We begged this university to hear our stories about how racism, sexism and a whole host of other problems prevail … and prevent us from being safe, from being at peace, from being whole and from being well,” says Candice Ellis, speaking in a megaphone before dozens of protestors at an on-campus rally last fall. “They invite us to meet in the president’s office and the faculty club. They say they listen. They say they hear us. They do nothing.”
Winding path to diversity
Unlike the string of student-led protests across the country, Brown University is being praised by longtime critics for its decision to invest resources and not just rhetoric into creating a “just and inclusive campus.”
In many respects, the university has been an outlier when it comes to diversity and inclusion. In 2000, Ruth J. Simmons became the first Black president of an Ivy League institution when she was elected Brown’s first female president.
Still, despite the fact that Simmons had shattered the proverbial glass ceiling and had a track record for championing diversity efforts as a top administrator at institutions such as Princeton and Spelman, her 11-year tenure as university president is now viewed with mixed results.
For example, some say that her plan to make amends for Brown’s historic ties to slavery has meant little in the long run.
“It was just a lot of talk,” says one longtime faculty member of the plan. “We never really saw any action. Just a lot of posturing.”
In the years since Simmons stepped down, some students, faculty and staff say that the campus climate has become more uncomfortable for minority students.
After a Latino student visiting Brown from Dartmouth College was allegedly slammed to the ground, student protestors directed their grievances directly at Brown’s president, Dr. Christina Paxson.
Paxson’s response? The Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University.
The comprehensive program calls for additional financial support to low-income students, doubling the number of faculty from underrepresented groups by 2022, and expanding the institution’s academic focus on race, ethnicity and social justice.
“There has been an appreciation for the goal of achieving a fully diverse and inclusive campus, not simply for diversity’s sake, but as a key element of our core mission of education and discovery,” says Paxson. “The work we’re engaging in goes beyond bringing a broader range of talented students, faculty and staff to Brown, to also turning that diversity into an asset that advances the impact of our teaching and research.”
Paxson says the plan is a holistic campuswide effort, inviting students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members to reflect, comment and provide input over the course of a year.
“I mention this because involving our entire community in the development process influenced the reaction to the final plan in significant and positive ways,” says Paxson in an interview with Diverse. “We hear that members of the Brown community appreciated the fact that we asked for input, that we considered a variety of voices and perspectives, and that we incorporated what we learned in a meaningful way. The end result is stronger for the ideas, insights and experiences of all those who participated.”
In a push for transparency, Paxson says that administrators held events in five cities across the country to engage in conversations about the diversity plan. In addition, university officials convened a series of conversations with faculty and staff on campus and continue to meet with student groups.
“The vast majority of individuals in the extended Brown community who have voiced their perspectives share our belief that higher education institutions, Brown included, have a tremendous amount of work to do to create more just, diverse and inclusive campus communities,” she says. “And we appreciate the recognition of our efforts to do so.”
While some students remain incredulous about the university’s motives, there are others, such as Dr. Glenn Loury, the well-known Black economist, who believe that the university foolishly caved into students’ demands.
“I have found the university to be an extremely warm, welcoming, supportive and open environment to undertake my work,” Loury posted on Facebook shortly after the protests erupted on campus. “I know well the people who run this institution, and the notion that they are racially insensitive is a shameful slander with no basis in fact.”
Forward for Brown
Still, Paxson says that the university has been moving forward. After the plan was released in February, a working group began taking immediate action and set a timeline for long-term work.
An early priority has been to guide stakeholders across campus in creating the department-based diversity and inclusion plans.
The university has expanded its emergency fund in Campus Life, which is critical for supporting students who may be unable to pay for expenses in the event of a crisis. A new center for first-generation students will open this summer and the university has begun assessing mentoring programs for both faculty and students.
“In total, the Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan outlined a set of more than 50 concrete, achievable actions that will make Brown a more fully diverse and inclusive campus,” says Paxson, adding that many of these initiatives are already underway and university offices are tracking implementation on the Brown website on a month-to-month basis.
“The responsibility for effecting change rests with all members of the Brown community. Collectively, we can create an academic community that embodies the social and intellectual diversity of the world, which is essential for allowing us to fulfill our mission of education and discovery. Across campus, we are committed to fulfilling this responsibility.”
“I think the Brown Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan is impressive and inspiring,” says Dr. Tricia Rose, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Brown. “Ambitious but also specific and multifaceted, I do think that with sustained implementation it will have a significant and positive impact on our campus.”
Rose says that Africana studies is a powerful role model of interdisciplinary scholarship on the Africana world and adds that many faculty across campus are working hard to implement this initiative although not everyone agrees with its import. “As people who study race know quite well, this subject is frequently fraught,” she says.
Still, she calls the undertaking “bold and audacious.”
“I think this plan is a great model both in the way it was developed, with the inclusion of a wide range of community input, and in its multifaceted implementation vision,” she says. “Of course this kind of work and community change is challenging, but it is crucial work.”
Dr. Jerlando F. L. Jackson, the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education and director and chief research scientist of Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, called the Brown plan “bold.”
“As someone who has assisted institutions with similar efforts, it appears that the key ingredients are in place to make a difference — key leadership commitment, diversity strategic plan, forthcoming assessment of the institution’s climate and dedicated resources to fund the institution’s transformation,” says Jackson.
“The nation should be watching with a careful eye, because if one of the nation’s best institutions by a host of metrics and one of the most well-resourced institutions who have taken a bold stance on inclusivity fails, what does that mean for other institutions that do not have any of those luxuries?”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.