From the archives: From Ivy League wild child to Harvard-lite

The University has long embraced its comfortable niche in academia — defined by the university-college model and the New Curriculum. But recent changes have tended to bring Brown in line with other Ivies, and it is positioning itself more and more to take rivals like Harvard head-on.
The University has long embraced its comfortable niche in academia — defined by the university-college model and the New Curriculum. But recent changes have tended to bring Brown in line with other Ivies, and it is positioning itself more and more to take rivals like Harvard head-on.
This article is part of the series Mission drift?

In 1946, President Henry Wriston wrote in a letter to the Corporation that Brown’s defining feature was its status as a “university-college” — an undergraduate-centric institution focused on the liberal arts with the resources of a large university.

The term — which has found its way into the University’s mission statement — established a unique niche for Brown in the world of higher education, attracting a specific breed of students and professors. For decades, it defined Brown’s place among America’s elite colleges.

But according to Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73 — the man perhaps most attuned to Brown’s position relative to its peers and its niche within academia — Brown is now “a high-powered research university.”

“We do it on a smaller scale than some of our peers, but I think the university-college concept is not as relevant to people,” Miller said.

Brown once included smaller liberal arts colleges among its perceived peers, but applicants now compare the University to larger institutions, Miller said. Administrators have oriented the University to compete with its Ivy League rivals and a select handful of other schools.

The fierce competition does not end with enrolling the best and brightest undergraduates. The University also must distinguish itself to attract graduate students, faculty, research dollars and prestige.

“When it comes to a particular field to determine the range of programs we should be offering, we are comparingourself to what our peers are doing,” said President Ruth Simmons. “We want to remain competitive with them in every sense.”

Simmons’ tenure has marked the beginning of a redefinition of Brown’s place relative to its peers. For many students, the benefits of these changes are apparent — gleaming new buildings, smaller classes and need-blind admission.

But as Brown has departed its comfortable perch within the Ivy League and turned to confront its larger peers head-on, it has placed increased emphasis on the “university” part of “university-college.”

Today, administrators face the difficult tasks of maintaining Brown’s traditional identity, remaining relevant on the national stage and establishing a global presence — all while raising enough money to keep up with theJoneses, the Harvards and the Yales.

With all these balls to juggle, it will only become increasingly difficult for administrators to maintain undergraduate education as the top institutional priority and Brown’s distinguishing feature.

Undergraduates and the PAE

When Simmons arrived in 2001, Brown lacked crucial infrastructure. To prevent the University from being left in the dust, she embarked on a series of reforms that have continued through her presidency.

“I always saw my time at Brown as trying to build a foundation for the next president to be able to take the University to the next level,” Simmons said. “I never thought that — based on what I inherited as president of Brown — that I would actually be able to do that myself because there was simply too much to do.”

The most immediate obstacle was money. Brown’s endowment was significantly smaller than those of the other Ivy League schools, so Simmons launched a fundraising effort that would ultimately raise $1.61 billion.

The University also undertook construction and renovation projects, including J. Walter Wilson, the JoukowskyInstitute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center and the Perry and MartyGranoff Center for the Creative Arts. This campus makeover began to give Brown state-of-the-art facilities that rivaled those of its peers.

The early years of Simmons’ presidency saw the birth of the Plan for Academic Enrichment, an initiative that unfolded throughout her tenure. Through the PAE, Brown hired more than 80 faculty members, driving the student-to-faculty ratio below 9-to-1. The PAE also resulted in expanded support for undergraduate advising, pre-orientation programs, Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards and Group Independent Study Projects.

PAE efforts represented a significant attempt to enhance the undergraduate experience. But the faculty remains split over the effectiveness of these measures, according to a poll conducted by The Herald this fall.

Only about half of poll respondents indicated they believe the PAE improved undergraduate academics, and almost a quarter responded that the PAE has not impacted or has worsened the quality.

The progress wrought by the PAE was largely driven by a desire to catch up to other universities, both in terms of research output and international renown. This begs the questions of whether benefits to undergrads have come only as by-products of competition — and what the future will hold as the University looks to catch up to the world’s premiere research institutions.

Ramping up research

In order to catch up, the University has dramatically increased its historically modest research profile in recent years.

“To achieve its goals and remain in the ranks of the most outstanding universities, Brown must continue to provide support to promising academic and research programs across the University,” the PAE states, emphasizing the importance of “targeted investments in academic departments and programs, the Graduate School and research initiatives.”

These efforts have been particularly noticeable in the Division of Biology and Medicine, where recent efforts to expand its public health and brain science programs indicate a strong desire to compete with peer institutions.

“Research is the starting point for the best institutions, and it’s the starting point for me,” Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences Edward Wing told the Alpert Medical School alumni magazine last year.

In evaluating Brown’s research profile, a critical measurement is “peer-reviewed research grant dollars,” Wing told the magazine. “We pay a lot of attention every month to how many proposals we are submitting, how many are awarded, how much money we have and how much we are expending.”

Simmons’ presidency has also seen BioMed undertake a marketing campaign to boost its cachet, said SarahBaldwin-Beneich, director of biomedical advancement communications. The division’s hope is that the increased outreach to media, potential donors and funding agencies will boost recruitment and strengthen the University’s reputation. While it has not yet been able to quantitatively assess the impact of the campaign, the division has seen anecdotal success, she said.

As part of this campaign, Brown turned to a strategy pursued more often at corporate headquarters than in the halls of academia: hiring outside branding consultants. The practice of selling a university has become in many ways like selling jeans, soap or any branded product.

In conjunction with Orange Square, which bills itself as “a leading strategy and design firm that works with mission-driven companies,” BioMed launched an annual report aimed largely at improving the Med School’s U.S. News and World Report ranking, according to Baldwin-Beneich and Orange Square President Kristine Merz.

The University has also taken steps to promote research outside BioMed, and its total research output has mushroomed.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2001, the University received $57.8 million in federal research grants. But 10 years later, that number had jumped to $91.1 million — a 57.6 percent increase.

At the University level, the PAE has provided a way for Brown to grow its graduate school and thus its research programs. The Organizational Review Committee’s restructuring of the University’s research offices streamlined the grant application process and led to a significant increase in funding, The Herald reported in January.

Research expansion is a chicken-or-egg phenomenon. In part, the University wants to expand research because a greater output boosts Brown’s reputation and prestige. In part, it wants to boost its reputation and prestige because doing so helps Brown attract the best researchers and the biggest grants.

The trickle-down effect

Administrators have consistently emphasized the opportunities this explosive growth of research presents forundergrads. “To be an undergraduate in an environment where knowledge is being created — where faculty know the latest in their fields rather than just teaching you what’s in the book — is a real advantage,” said Clyde Briant, vice president for research.

But these benefits may only trickle down to a subset of undergrads, notably those in the sciences. According to a poll conducted by The Herald this fall, 42.3 percent of faculty members said they spend the greatest portion of their time doing research — leaving less time for activities like advising and teaching.

Brown works hard to weed out potential faculty members who express interest in research but dislike teaching, Simmons said.

But some professors worry that the recent changes to the faculty tenure process reveal a University preference for research at the expense of undergraduate education, The Herald reported in October.

And in a university-college model, “the undergraduates do not get the kind of careful personal attention that they receive at the best small colleges,” former Professor of Political Science Erwin Hargrove wrote in a 1976 curriculum report. “And the faculty are very badly overworked as they struggle to meet the demands of both graduate and undergraduate teaching and research commitments.”

Thirty-five years later, the increased pressure to publish or perish can only make it more difficult for Brown professors to devote personal attention to their undergrad pupils.

Doing good in the neighborhood

Brown has also embarked on a more visible departure from the activities of a university-college, putting itself at the center of an effort to reinvent Rhode Island’s dying industrial economy. In doing so, it follows the lead of larger institutions like Harvard, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, which have enmeshed themselves in local industries.

The initiative has pushed Brown’s footprint over the Providence River as it works with municipal and state governments, a consortium of hospitals and private industry to create a new knowledge economy in the formerly dilapidated Jewelry District. At the geographic center of this effort is the new Medical Education Building at 222 Richmond St.

While the University has gradually grown since its establishment — a fact also noted in the mission statement — it “missed a beat or two” going into the 21st century, said Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior advisor to the president.

With Simmons’ arrival, the University sought to get “back on track,” creating a master plan for physical expansion in 2004, Spies said. The plan explored potential expansions both on and off College Hill, including the land made available by the I-195 relocation.

Efforts were largely driven by the hope that expansion might foster the growth of research and teaching, Spies said, but it was also important for the University to consider expansion from the perspective of what peer institutions were doing.

“We couldn’t find an example of what we think of as a successful university — a competitive university — that hasn’t had pretty regular growth throughout its history,” Spies said.

A preeminent municipal institution for centuries, in recent years the University has also increased its presence in Providence through avenues other than physical expansion. Brown took an active role in helping to establish the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and recently announced plans to strengthen its relationship with Lifespan, the parent company for the Medical School’s partner hospitals.

These expansions and partnerships entail benefits for many students and recent alums, such as support for entrepreneurs and potential internships, Spies said.

Still, there is a “legitimate worry” that expanding the University’s role in the city and the state, as part of a transition to a research-heavy model, could detract from focus on undergrads, as has happened at other universities, Spies said.

But, if treated appropriately, Spies said the university-college model is not incompatible with a research university.

“As long as we make sure that we are every bit as good for our undergraduates as we’ve always been — and better, getting better all the time — and that all of the assets of resources associated with benefits of the research university support and enhance undergraduate education, … then we’re doing what we ought to do,” he said.

Going global

Ten years ago, the only American schools with name recognition in China were Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, said Karen Sibley, dean of continuing education. Today, Brown is working to make a place for itself on that list.

The University’s mission statement distinguishes between national and world communities — but to some extent, that divide may be a relic of the past.

“We used to talk about local and global, but it’s pretty clear today that they are virtually one and the same,” Simmons said. “So it’s imperative that Brown have a place in the international sphere, to be seen as an institution that is important globally.”

The push to make Brown internationally visible will be another legacy of Simmons’ presidency.

Alums outside the United States would often come back to the University with reports that “Brown was just not known enough,” Simmons said. So in a 2007 review of the PAE, the University introduced a series of Phase II initiatives, one of which was a drive to internationalize.

Through globalization efforts, Brown has formed partnerships with institutions in China, France, India, Mexico and Turkey as well as undertaking efforts to increase the numbers of international student applicants.

PAE reports emphasize the need to stand out among competitor universities as the impetus
for globalization. “Just as the 1969 curriculum successfully distinguished Brown among its national peer institutions 40 years ago, we must now work to develop our own innovative contribution to global education,” states the PAE.

These international attempts to play catch-up with Harvard and Yale come with both potential gains and potential pitfalls. And as administrators cast their eyes on China, India and other far reaches of the globe, the risk of losing sight of the classroom experience on College Hill grows.

‘Competitive in every sense’

Driven in large part by a compulsion to both keep up with and distinguish itself from world-class competitors, Brown is rapidly expanding on several fronts. While the benefits of a larger research profile and a stronger presence in local and world communities may reach some undergraduates, this expansion indicates an identity crisis of sorts.

Ironically, it is only on account of Wriston, the great proponent of the university-college, that Brown ever made it into the Ivy League. The University was not included in initial plans for the league, but Wriston’s tremendous stature led to Brown’s inclusion when it formed in the mid-1950s. Today, the University’s emulation of its Ivy peers leads it ever further afield from the model Wriston championed.

The current president sees the changes as a necessary means of preserving Wriston’s model.

“Brown’s future as a university-college cannot be assured by just being a college,” Simmons said. “If you look at all the underlying factors, you can see that if we adhered to that and only looked at that part of our identity, in 25 years, we would be off the map.”

Expansion is “absolutely necessary just to stay where we are,” she said.

The most tangible appraisal of the University’s place on the map remains the annual spectacle of Ivy League admissions. Though Brown’s pool of applicants was once a self-selecting group attracted by the university-college and New Curriculum, today’s applicants form a larger, less distinct group.

High school seniors today apply to more schools than ever before, and Brown’s adoption of the Common Application widens its net further. Every January for the past several years, the Admission Office has announced a new record-high number of applicants.

Brown’s applicant pool has also grown to more closely resemble those of peer institutions. For the class of 2015, 80 percent of students who declined Brown’s offer of admissions went to another Ivy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford or Duke University, according to Miller.

After Harvard and Princeton eliminated their early admission programs in 2007, other Ivies saw significant growth in early applications — a telling illustration of the convergence in pools.

As Brown evolves, there is a risk that departures from the New Curriculum could attract “a contingent of generic, very driven students” who apply to Brown not because of its unique academic structure but simply because it is another elite school, said Matt Gelfand ’08. Gelfand is a Harvard Law School student and co-founder of the Open Jar Foundation, which promotes curricular freedom.

While Brown’s burgeoning reputation and prolific expansion play a role in its ever-increasing ability to attract applicants, for decades the heart of its allure has been the unique undergraduate education it offers. If that allure fades, so will the original foundation of Brown’s phenomenally successful half-century.

The University is pinning its plans for another successful 50 years on hiring new faculty, expanding and modernizing the campus, investing in research and keeping Brown competitive with its peers. But the schools Brown calls peers all have something it does not: money.

In 2010, Brown’s endowment per student stood at around $260,000. Harvard, Yale and Princeton all had per-student endowments well over $1.2 million. In other words, for every dollar Brown could afford to spend from its endowment on an undergraduate, Princeton could spend seven times as much.

When Brown defined its place in academia with a unique educational philosophy and employed a more selective approach to the activities it took on, it crafted a strategy that allowed it to compete with the best schools using fewer resources. Whether the University can successfully transition to this more ambitious model will depend, more than any other factor, on its ability to bring in money.

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