Tennis ’14: Cultivating student activism

I’ll begin with a cliche: Your experience at Brown is defined by so much more than your classes and your academic coursework. Furthermore, the other aspects of Brown that make it a wonderful and unique school do not complete the definition of your experience. Instead, you may learn the most from the aspects of Brown that are disturbing and problematic.

You heard me. Identifying what sucks about Brown, and working to find solutions to fix it, is where a vital part of your education lies. I’m talking about deep engagement with the inner workings of the University’s governance and the ensuing possibilities for student activism.

You might be aware of the outpouring of student activism on campus right now surrounding the University’s questionable policies and approaches toward handling sexual assault. Students have shown themselves to be committed and willing to educate themselves about the issue, immerse themselves in the nitty-gritty details of the cause and fight powerfully and persistently — and also respectfully — with the powers that be to change attitudes and practices at Brown for the better.

But did you know that a similar student movement to change University policy on sexual assault happened before? In 2007, a group of student leaders formed the Sexual Assault Taskforce — almost identical in name to the Sexual Assault Policy Taskforce that was founded last semester — to overhaul the campus approach to sexual assault that existed at the time.

According to Amy Littlefield, one of the taskforce’s leaders, the group accomplished many of its goals and achieved a “tangible sense of purpose and outrage.” But, as Littlefield wrote to me in an email, “that kind of momentum can be hard to pass on. … It is the inevitably transient nature of college organizing — people graduate and move on.”

Institutional memory among student activists is extremely short. Many student initiatives — the Brown Conversation and Brown for Financial Aid, to name two — don’t survive beyond a few years. The problem, I believe, lies in the difficulty of meaningfully recruiting first-years into campus causes from the moment these causes take off. When mobilizing juniors and seniors graduate, they have often failed to establish sufficient leadership among younger students to ensure their movements’ survival.

The issue boils down to first-years’ engagement in campus life — or lack thereof. I remember my very first fall semester at Brown. I was so overwhelmed by all of my options, all of the opportunities on campus — not to mention my utter terror at doing college-level coursework for the first time — that I simply retreated into the comfort of my dorm and devoted the entirety of my attention to my friends and studies.

How, then, do we get first-years involved in the University from the start? I have a few ideas.

First, the push to educate first-years about Brown’s uniqueness and its tradition of student activism must begin prior to orientation. I’m talking about summer reading. Brown needs to seriously overhaul its summer reading practice. Instead of some random book — the selection of which often seems nebulous at best, and which most students don’t read, anyway — the University should assign students to read portions of the student-written Magaziner-Maxwell Report, upon which our Open Curriculum is based, and two pamphlets written by late University President Henry Wriston.

The Magaziner-Maxwell Report is a long, albeit fascinating document, so I recommend assigning chapter nine, which focuses on the proposed philosophy of Brown’s education. First-years should also read two pamphlets written by Wriston: “The Structure of Brown University,” on the roles of the Corporation, president, faculty members, students and alums, and “The University College,” on the significance of the university-college model and liberal arts education.

As the system currently stands, before their first semester begins, students write their new advisers letters, commenting on the ways the assigned book relates to their own experiences. Instead of forcing connections in this format, the letter should be a meditation on how to incorporate the lessons introduced by these documents into a meaningful Brown career. Instead of a pseudo book-club discussion, orientation should feature a reflective dialogue about the nature of Brown’s governance, curriculum and tradition of education in relation to current hot-button issues found on all campuses: diversity, privilege, sexual assault, environmentalism — the list goes on.

The idea is to know the place and the issues before you come here, so you can hit the ground running from day one. History is important. Context is important. It is well-known that people effect the most change in their own communities — the more familiar you are with a problem, the more tools you have to fix it. First-years should come prepared to participate in a discussion of Brown’s current problems and find solutions.

Meiklejohns can also play a potential role in nurturing community engagement among first-year students. Kayla Rosen ’14, who served for the past three years as a Meiklejohn leader, said in an interview that the Meiklejohn program could “guide people to the places where activism is happening if they want to be activists.”

But Rosen noted that Meiklejohns do not try to put expectations onto first-years regarding what their Brown experiences should look like, since there is no one way to go about Brown. Indeed! That’s the beauty of Brown, after all. But before first-years can choose their path, it is important that they understand the environment through which those potential paths wind. Rosen emphasized that the University advising structure “should foster intentionality in everything” that students do.

In my view, the Meiklejohn program, just like most elements with the potential to shape the first-year experience, could foster an ethos of community engagement. That way, first-years possess the tools to become student activists from the start. First-Year Seminars can offer another means of historicizing and contextualizing the Brown experience for new students, by facilitating insight into and discussion concerning the University’s strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, leaders of on-campus student activism movements must learn to frame their cause in a way that applies to first-years. First-years should be able to identify from the start how campus-based causes will shape their experiences, so that they understand what stakes they have in the outcome.

This year, Brown turns 250. It didn’t get to this point by sticking to the status quo. Our University is a vastly different place than it was even 25 years ago, but that, in a huge way, owes to the activism of the students who love it. These are the students who don’t want to see Brown become a follower, to become too focused on adhering to social norms and too afraid to take leadership on issues that matter — both now and for future generations of Brown students.

Let’s be honest: Brown does not grow and change because of the actions of administrators and alums alone, nor by the dictate of the latest strategic plan. It’s the student initiative that is the seed of progress.