"Model College" Leads Ivies in Applicants
The Ivy League in Transition; Brown
With 5300 undergraduates, Brown is one of the smallest schools in the Ivy League, but the school nonetheless attracted a hefty chunk of this year's Ivy applicant pool and a corresponding amount of media attention when it fielded an impressive 13,250 prospective members for the class of 1987.
Aside from barreling the school to the front of the Ivy competition, the stunning increase also forced the Brown campus community to examine flattering label "model school of the '80s."
Just about everyone on Brown's campus agrees that one undeniable reason the school attracts such large numbers of applicants is the "New Curriculum," designed jointly by students and faculty in 1969. The program quite simply has no requirements whatsoever. It demands a great deal of personal discipline but amazingly little else. Undergraduates hail the freedom it allows them to sample every department's offerings as particularly convenient.
To encourage further "risk taking" without penalties, failing grades, mercifully, never appear on a student's transcript. Although there is general agreement that this is the area where the most abuse of the unstructured curriculum occurs, students say they value the liberty to dabble in departments other than their own.
Junior Christopher C. Gregory, an engineering major, says the system has convinced him to take humanities courses because he knows a 'no credit' grade in one of them would never reach the eyes of prospective employers. "I think you can explore more. I was able to take a philosophy course without sweating about it," he says.
The Curriculum Review Committee, which makes recommendations to the administration on problems within the program, spent much of this past year discussing this concern with distribution. Faculty member Joan Scott, professor of women's studies, says that around 90 percent of Brown students already take at least one class outside their majors and that the other 10 percent are mainly science concentrators.
"The overwhelming sense is that the system works quite well as it is and there is no point in changing what seems to be working," Scott explains.
Yet despite the fact that a majority of the students select courses eclectically, the committee still worries about the insular minority. Scott adds that there is a possibility of instituting an optional core curriculum to combat the problem.
Although this option is still under discussion, the administration will probably broaden departmental guidelines in the near future. Dean of the College Harriet Sheridan, who is chairman of the Educational Policy Committee, will most likely recommend strongly that more concentrations next year adopt related outside requirements such as a foreign language component or a computer literacy requirement.
The administration prides itself on the number of counselors and academic advisers available to freshmen. Besides undergraduate "peer counselors," who form the bulk of the freshman advisory system, there are faculty advisers and in some cases minority peer counselors.
Many freshmen say that they are more comfortable with upperclassman advisers than graduate students. And Bruce Donovan, dean of freshmen and sophomores, says that the system of undergraduate counselors is extremely popular with students--both advisers and advisees. The increase in applicants for counseling positions, from 150 to 300 this year, testifies to its tremendous success, Donovan adds.
"We don't have that fear of youth that other places seem to have," the dean says.
This respect for students' abilities and opinions extends even into administrative affairs, as the vast numbers of student representatives on the university's many committees demonstrates. "Just because someone is on the faculty doesn't mean they'll be any good on a committee," Donovan quips.
Faculty and students serve jointly on the 12 college committees, which make recommendations to the administration on issues concerning administrative policies, student affairs and academics.
Students have become so used to their comfortable relations with university officials that they sometimes go out of their way to accommodate their wishes. When alumnus John D. Rockefeller Jr. visited the campus and overheard students calling the social sciences and humanities library named after him "the Rock," he expressed his displeasure to the administration.
In response, flyers were circulated discouraging the disrespectful appellation and urging students to find another familiarization. The ever-obedient Brunos responded by dubbing it "the John." Because the second appellation was no more amenable to the graduate, students had their way and have returned to calling it "the Rock."
Aside from "The Rock" there are five other libraries, including a 14 floor science library. A five year $160 million fundraising drive has also bank-rolled a new construction spree which includes a new sports complex and performing arts center. Brown has also launched a separate major computer expansion project, at an estimated cost of $50-70 million, as part of an effort to educate its students in new technologies.
The university plans to install a network of "work stations", outlets which will allow students and Brown employees to "plug into" the school's computer system. Dorm rooms, faculty offices and" every place where there is a desk" will be included in the system by the end of the decade, predicts Andries van Dam, chairman of the computer science department.
Brown also has the country's first computer classroom which allows students to do problems on their own computer terminals during lectures.
Although it has catapulted into the forefront in the number of applicants it receives, formerly Brown lagged behind its Ivy League sisters in this area. The tendency to consider it as a "safety school" just in case of rejection elsewhere seems to be on its way out, notes Dean Donovan. The university, while similar in many respects to any other Ivy League school, is steadily gaining an independent identity.
A privately endowed, non-sectarian university, established in 1764 for male undergraduates, Brown became coeducational when it merged with Pembroke College in 1971. It now has an almost even ratio of men to women in its student body. The 40-acre main campus looks down on Providence from atop the city's College Hill. Most students live on the campus either in dorms or "theme" houses--which range from a Spanish language house to a holistic health house whose occupants do yoga and give massages to each other.
Because of the relatively small size of the campus and the fact that there are only two dining halls, the campus forms a tight, friendly community, says Eric Widmer, dean of student life. "Anything that happens is immediately known all over campus," he adds.
Although the campus buildings are scattered and not as well planned as Harvard's House system, it has an amazing sense of community. "The entertainment that is offered is invariably open to anyone and is well-attended." Widmer explains.
The campus social life used to be dominated by the fraternity system, but the "frats" popularity has receded. Only about ten percent of the student body is now pledged to fraternities and only about half of the 20 fraternities that previously existed remain active. Alumni gifts, however, have prevented frats from dying out altogether. One fraternity, for example, was disbanded last year for vandalism but was reinstated when a $50,000 donation from an alumnus allowed them to repair the damage.
One mainstay of Brown social life is the campus snack bar system. Students who miss meals during the day can grab a bite to eat at places like "the Gate" and "the Ivy Room." Each spot has a different decor and undergraduates can use their meal 'credit', kept track of by a computerized system, to down some pizza or slurp a frappe.
The Gate, for example, is lavishly furnished, with a mirrored interior and leather couches. The students--chatting there support the image of Brown as the "friendly school" and most of them cite this as another deciding factor in their choice of schools.
"There's an atmosphere here that's different from any other school I've ever been to," says Jon Linden, a junior. "They're much friendlier," he adds.
In a recent interview with a New York Times correspondent. Brown president Howard Swearer also affirmed the school's media image. "It's corny, I know, but Brown really is a friendly place," he said.
Despite the generally rosy picture the administration paints of campus life, Brown is not without its troubles. A recent incident in which two students threw snowballs at a Latino student and allegedly yelled racial slurs at the woman has high-lighted racial tensions on campus.
Although the offenders were placed on disciplinary probation, the University Council on Student Affairs decided the incident wasn't racially motivated. "Students are rightly upset that the university didn't take a more public position," said Robert Lee, associate dean of the college and director of the third World Center. The center Lee heads was founded in 1975 after a long series of negotiations between students, faculty and administrators. Prior to the center's existence there was an Afro-American house, which dissolved in 1974. In response to the gap left by the closing a group of Black faculty and administrators proposed the present minority center which sponsors various lectures, race awareness symposia and minority student organizations.
Brown has been averaging a 16 percent minority figure for the past three years after dramatically increasing its recruiting efforts and succeeding in more than doubling the 7.5 percent figure it had nine years ago. Despite these efforts, however, the university still lags behind Columbia and Harvard in minority recruitment.
Lee attributes a bit of the because to the favorable media coverage but says the university should continue to increase its efforts in this area, and in promote more racial awareness un campus. "It's not just a matter of dispersing the chocolate chip through the chocolate chip cookie," he says, "but having a clear voice in the intellectual life of the university."