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The Providence Journal
April 21, 1985

By David Thomasson

Troubled days at Brown University

Three years ago I was a graduate student in the Midwest contemplating a transfer to the Ivy League. The department in my field at the University of Missouri was ranked, for what rankings are worth, 44th in the nation — not so high that a quantum leap upward wasn't worth a try. Brown, to which I had applied, was ranked seventh. To skip the interim odyssey, I was admitted and have been hard at it for the past two years, trying to live up to what I still regard as a great privilege. There hasn't been a day that I've walked across campus without feeling a quiet pride in being a student here.

Recent events, however, have been collecting in my awareness like bits of abrasive grit, wearing away at my sense of Brown's dignity as an institution. First came the business with the suicide pills, a story not worth retelling. Next, an abusive gang of students disrupted a job recruitment session to make a "citizen's arrest" of some representatives from the Central Intelligence Agency. Now, as you probably know, a variety of special-interest groups are charging the university with "institutional racism" and issuing long lists of demands — about which, more in a moment.

What chafes can be put as a question: Why do these students, who are presumably brighter, better educated and certainly more privileged than most others, persist in behaving like sniveling children?

Let us begin with procedural matters. A group calling itself the Coalition to End Institutional Racism recently enlisted students in a one-day boycott of classes, in lieu of which all would gather on the green for song, speech and "seminars" of an arcane variety. The thing was apparently pulled off on schedule, for on the appointed day I noticed several hundred seminarians lolling about on the ground, as contented as pigs in a peach orchard.

The aim of the exercise was to punctuate the lists of demands that had been issued to the administration — one list from Latinos, another from blacks. Adding a sort of exclamation point, some of the seminars adjourned for an afternoon sit-in at the faculty club's dining room. The crowd of diners and thus the sit-in's effect were virtually non-existent. This didn't dim the enthusiasm with which the victors held their fists aloft as they emerged before news photographers.

Such whoopee-cushion tactics immediately raise questions about the maturity if not the sincerity of those who use them, but there are stronger grounds for raising those questions. Reasonable people of honest intention do not raise their fists and go on "strike" while their demands are being heard in good faith. In fact, people not ruled by their emotions don't begin by making demands. They request a hearing, they propose changes, and they listen with the same respect that their own proposals are given. Perhaps another strike is in order, this time with seminars on good manners and the ethics of controversy.

So much for procedure. As for the content of the protesters' concerns, my knowledge is limited — partly because I am put off by the atmosphere of spiteful hostility they have chosen to create, and partly because what I've read proves to me that these kids haven't begun to think through their positions (just as they failed to do with the suicide pills and the CIA "arrest"). Thus, if they have any position beyond their bald demands, it is opaque to me.

Take the reckless way the charge of "racism" is being flung about. Have these children spent a sober minute reflecting on what this notion means? To qualify as a racist, one must, at a minimum, believe that some race is morally inferior to others, that its members do not possess the same moral rights as members of other races. Pray tell, what has the university administration done, jointly or severally, to give evidence of any such attitude?

The first answer I read was that black and Third World students were receiving unequal and inadequate police protection on campus. The facts, however, seem to be (a) that 40 percent of Brown's security personnel are members of the races or nationalities claiming unequal protection, and (b) that in every case of allegedly inadequate protection cited by the students, the police produced evidence that they had responsibly investigated and disposed of each case.

Make no mistake, there have been scattered racist incidents among students. Bottle-throwing and racial epithets shouted from windows are the sort I've heard of, and the university has shown nothing but resolve in handling them. It has expelled several students in recent years, and appropriately so. But the charge of unequal police protection has been deflated by the facts and thus has been largely abandoned by those who initiated it.

What remains to sustain the charge of institutional racism is, so far as I can tell, just so much recycled ditchwater from the 1960s. Brown is experiencing an anemic replay of those brainless days when every conceivable minority demanded as a right that its race (creed, nationality, political peeve, etc.) be represented on the faculty, in the curriculum and on the student body in metaphysically correct percentages.

Brown's protesters are curiously indifferent to the question of whether there even exist enough qualified faculty and students among these various subgroups to meet the quotas they demand. Moreover, they apparently haven't the intellectual maturity to appreciate the need for rational argument to support their demands. Meeting quotas is not a self-evident moral imperative. I've yet to hear the protesters argue that doing so is even morally desirable. Want of argument, however, has never cooled the fever of a zealot.

Howard Swearer, Brown's president, has published several lengthy statements addressing the protesters' complaints. He has set busy men and women to the task of hearing these people out. He has, in my estimation, taken the protesters much too seriously. The substance of the complaints and the manner in which they have been delivered suggest a more appropriate response. Toward the end of restoring institutional dignity at Brown, I commend to President Swearer a locution that was used once, but with good effect, by a U.S. presidential candidate who was similarly bullied by a disrespectful crowd. The phrase, as I recall, goes: Aw shut up!

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