Barry Beckham ’66 can describe his four years at Brown in one word: lonely.
Beckham, one of six black students to enter his freshman class, said the atmosphere was “mostly friendly and not intimidating,” but he was still unhappy at Brown and desperate to transfer by his sophomore year.
“There weren’t many people to talk with, and there was no social life for the most part,” he said. Weekends were “just another two or three days to stay in your room and study.”
“My grades were so mediocre,” he said, “I couldn’t even transfer.”
Beckham met with Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine, then an academic support dean, who offered to connect him with people he knew at Princeton.
But, Beckham said, “I just kind of bit the bullet and did as much as I could in the last couple of years to boost up my GPA.”
One of only three black students in his year to earn a degree — the other three did not finish Brown — Beckham ultimately graduated as class marshal with an A.B. in English and American Literature. Upon graduating, he received a scholarship to attend Columbia Law School.
Though he did not know it at the time, the Brown Beckham attended was on the verge of major demographic change.
Two years later, in December 1968, about 65 black students left Brown and the women’s school of Pembroke College in protest of what they saw as troublingly low black student enrollment.
Brown’s Corporation voted to merge with Pembroke three years after the walkout, officially establishing a coeducational institution.
Both Brown’s demographics and its understanding of “diversity” have changed significantly since 1962, when Beckham enrolled. But as the student body has evolved over the years, so have students’ needs and the campus’ approach to questions of race, gender, geographic origin and class.
Reflecting on Brown’s historical and current relationship with its various constituencies, students, faculty members and staff members questioned whether the University has sufficiently addressed those newer constituencies’ needs — and, if not, how Brown’s changing relationship with diversity and demographics can or should shape future University policy.
The shift from the sixties
Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02 likes to joke that he remains on a first-name basis with every black student in his graduating class.
“I know them all,” he said. “All four of them.”
Miller said the photos of the Class of 1967 — the seniors of his freshman year — in his yearbook illustrate “a uniformity that would absolutely not fit with what Brown is like today.”
The University does not keep records of student demographics dating back further than 1983. But in his undergraduate years, Miller said, the men of Brown outnumbered the women of Pembroke by a ratio of about three to one. Professor of History Howard Chudacoff, who joined Brown’s faculty in 1970, said that based on his “purely impressionistic” recollections of his first year on College Hill, Brown enrolled about 2,800 men compared to Pembroke’s 1,200.
The University was “way less international than it is now” — a handful of students were from outside of the country, but the vast majority hailed from within the United States, Miller said. Though it was hard to quantify precisely how many students had attended private versus public high schools, Miller said about two-thirds of the students in his first-year dorm came from private schools, the majority of which were in the Northeast.
The national context shifted in 1968, with race riots upending cities such as Detroit and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. In Providence, black students at Brown and Pembroke left campus for five days in a demonstration that would later be termed “the 1968 walkout.”
After the walkout, the University pledged to allocate more than $1 million toward bolstering black student enrollment and hired new black admission officers. Miller said the impact was immediate, with black student enrollment visibly higher within a year.
“It was really quite a dramatic change,” he said.
In 1975, a group of students protested a budget put forth by then-President Donald Hornig they argued would disproportionately harm minority students by implementing policies such as insufficient financial aid and tenuring of minority faculty members. Called the Third World Coalition, the group failed to defeat Hornig’s budget but did wrest a promise from the president to more actively recruit and support minority students. The coalition ultimately evolved into Brown’s Third World Center.
Since those incidents, Brown’s demographic makeup has shifted racially and also in terms of gender, geographic origin and socioeconomic status, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research. Hovering between 300 and 400, the number of black students enrolled has remained relatively consistent over the past 30 years — the University enrolled 368 black students in 1983 and 394 in 2013, according to data released by the Office of Institutional Research. But other ethnic groups have seen larger boosts in enrollment: Brown enrolled 117 Hispanic students in 1983, compared to 671 in 2013, and the number of Asian-American undergraduates grew from 270 in 1983 to 761 in 2013.
From enrolling 2,626 women in 1983 — just less than the 2,783 men — Brown shifted to incorporate a majority female population 10 years later. In 2013, 3,172 women were undergraduates at Brown, compared to 2,995 men.
Geographically, the percentage of students enrolling from abroad has grown from 4.3 percent of the undergraduate body — 233 students in 1983 — to 14.4 percent, or 885 students, in 2013.
Neither the Office of Institutional Research nor the Office of Financial Aid keeps historic records of the number of students on financial aid, office representatives said. But Chudacoff said to his recollection, the percentage of students receiving aid has grown from about one-third of the student body to just under 50 percent, where it rests today.
Even beyond numbers, how the University defines undergraduate diversity has changed over the years.
Both nationally and at Brown, the term appeared rarely in conversation before the middle and late 1970s, Chudacoff said, when the concept of group identity entered popular vernacular. Around then, he said, “rights revolutions and politics and popular culture” changed conceptions of how people conceived of themselves and each other.
“Diversity and identity become much more part of our vocabulary and conceptions by the 1980s,” he said. “That coincides with the expansion of applications to Brown and the expansion of the student body. A very slow expansion — but it certainly has happened.”
How Brown defines diversity and demographic groups has shifted significantly since the late ’60s and early ’70s, said Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73. Diversity was then understood simply: People would simply “count the number at that time of African-American faces in the facebook, and that was how one would define diversity,” he said.
Today, by contrast, the University’s conception of the term considers factors such as race, sexual identification, socioeconomic status, geographic origin and religion, he said. Further nuance exists within groups such as Asian-Americans and Latinos, whose broad census titles belie the variety within them.
Interim Dean of the College Margaret Klawunn, who has worked at the University since 1996, noted other shifts: For instance, while Brown this year touted its largest ever percentage of first-generation college admits, “nobody even thought about tracking” first-generation students when she first arrived.
Klawunn attributed changing student demographics to new policies, such as the need-blind admission introduced under former President Ruth Simmons for first-year domestic applicants to Brown and a concerted effort by admission officers to advertise Brown to students from high schools other than those that have traditionally operated as “feeder schools.”
This year, students admitted to Brown came from about 1,750 different high schools, Miller said. A generation ago, only about 1,250 or 1,350 schools sent students to Brown. The University still maintains relationships with “some great high schools,” Miller said, but accepting 20 or 30 students from a single preparatory school — common when he was an undergrad — is no longer the norm.
National demographics have also shifted, Miller said, pointing to larger Latino and Asian-American populations that have in turn fueled enrollment boosts in those two ethnic groups.
But financially, students and faculty members have questioned whether the price tag attached to a Brown education bars access for specific demographic groups. In 2012, students formed the now-defunct group Brown for Financial Aid, calling on the University to reform its aid policies in part because of how those policies could shape student demographics.
In particular, the group argued that lack of need-blind admission for international, transfer and Resumed Undergraduate Education students curbs the potential for student diversity, and that even domestic aid packages limit socioeconomic variation in terms of which students can afford to attend Brown.
Since 2008, the proportion of students using loans to finance their educations has sharply declined, said James Tilton, director of financial aid. He cited a policy change that decreased the number of undergraduates receiving loans and increased that of students receiving grants. Today, 67 percent of students on financial aid receive loan-free packages, compared to only 6 percent in 2008.
But high average loan debt at Brown may often mean middle class students admitted to Brown opt to attend another university with higher grant aid or lower expected family contributions, said Miller, who also served on the recent strategic planning Committee on Financial Aid.
“It does cut down on sort of the economic diversity on campus,” Miller said, adding that as a professor, he wants to teach the best students, regardless of their backgrounds. “To the extent that we still have economic barriers for some families that prevents that from happening, that distresses me,” he said.
Questions have arisen as to whether Brown has done enough to support new student constituencies if and when they do arrive on campus.
“The University — and by that I mean some of the higher-up administrators — are finally realizing that diversity in admissions does not mean diversity,” said Justice Gaines ’16, a member of the TWC’s Student Advisory Board. “It just means diversity in admissions.”
Though the University has brought in students from varied backgrounds, it must “protect” that diversity by determining and meeting students’ academic and cultural needs, Gaines said, citing as an example first-generation college students, whose support and transitional resources have traditionally been housed in the TWC.
“There’ll be a big push to move that outside of the TWC, because they need to get a lot more resources,” Gaines said.
Joseph Browne ’11, who heads Brown’s New Scientist Program, said though administrators discuss how to ensure all students have an equal chance of finding academic success, achieving that end is not necessarily a top University goal.
“We have a concern things aren’t where they should be,” he said. “But there’s a difference between taking a step in a direction and running full tilt.”
Browne, whose job includes overseeing academic programs such as Catalyst, a pre-orientation program in its pilot stage that introduces underrepresented students to science programs, said academic support programs are valuable — especially for students who come from high schools with fewer resources — but they are not sufficient.
Students often need help transitioning to the new cultural environment, he said. “And those are harder to measure, those are harder to quantify and those are harder to get funding and things behind.”
Cultural transition and support could involve addressing questions such as why a faculty member might remark on a student’s English proficiency when he or she is a fluent speaker who happens to be a minority, he said.
The University constantly tries to engage with and support diverse constituencies, Klawunn said, and administrators continue to seek new ways to improve those efforts. She cited ongoing efforts to hire faculty members more representative of the student body’s racial and gender-based breakdowns, a priority also outlined in President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan.
Klawunn said current efforts also include working to help advisers understand students’ diverse backgrounds and needs, as well as academic offerings such as First-Year Seminars and the Curricular Advising Program, which she said introduce students to intimate, more supportive learning environments. She also cited residential and academic mentoring programs such as the Women’s Peer Counselor Program, the Minority Peer Counselor Program, the Meiklejohn Program and the Matched Advising Program for Sophomores.
Though purposed as general academic support programs, such programs can be effective in addressing a diverse student body, Klawunn said.
Catalyst is currently grant-funded, meaning it may not have resources to operate beyond this coming year. But “those kinds of programs are high priority to us,” Klawunn said, adding that the University is seeking grants to fund Catalyst and looking to develop other kinds of academic support initiatives.
The changing institution
University institutions originally purposed to support new student populations have also evolved over time, staff members said.
At the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, which was founded in 1974, issues such as sexual assault, reproduction and work-life balance continually surface in institutional conversation, said Gail Cohee, director of the center and assistant dean of the College.
But students today conceive of gender and gender identity differently than they did 30 years ago, Cohee said. Many students Cohee meets now enter Brown with “fairly sophisticated ideas about … intersectional identity,” a change that reshapes conversations and conceptions about gender on campus.
“Things shift, and what we talk about shifts a little bit,” she said.
When it was first established, the TWC existed primarily to serve black students, and its flagship Third World Transition Program originally existed as the Transitional Summer Program, a weeks-long event designed to help minority students academically and culturally transition to Brown.
Since then, though, as the University’s student demographics have changed, institutions such as the Third World Center have also changed to reflect that, said Mary Grace Almandrez, director of the TWC and assistant dean of the College.
“As the needs of students of color change, so should our programs,” Almandrez.
The TWC is currently undergoing a strategic planning process, the recommendations of which are expected to be released this month.
Conversations around demographics and diversity have also shifted. Between the 1975 Third World Coalition and last October’s protest around a scheduled lecture by former New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the fervor of race-based discourse somewhat lessened, Chudacoff said. But, he added, that lessening did not mean “a lull in interest.”
“Race and ethnicity,” he said, “have always been at the forefront of interests on the campus.”