Brown University's History of Protest

A Brown alumna reflects on the university's legacy of student activism and its role in today's discourse


One of the unforeseen outcomes of the 2016 presidential election, which was marked to a large degree by apathy and low voter turnout, has been a sharp uptick in forms of activism since the results rolled in. Most notable to date was the Washington D.C. Women’s March on the day after the inauguration, which gathered a massive, remarkably diverse crowd. Personal favorite: A wheelchair-bound grandmother who carried a sign that read, “I don’t usually protest... but, geez.”

Consistently there have been other outbreaks of protest, too, impelled by concern and even outrage about America’s fate. In fact, as Rachel Maddow reported on MSNBC in early February, there appears to be a widespread activist bug in America, which is happening both on the ground and in digital space. Regardless of how you feel about the election or its repercussions, the data that Maddow cited shows an unprecedented level of civic dissent.

So this is where we find ourselves, now. It’s an environment in which one of our foremost local institutions, Brown University, finds itself under an intensified spotlight in terms of what, why, and how its community engages in activism.

Much of this heightened scrutiny owes to an ultra-charged climate. Collectively, as a nation, we’re like a bottle of soda that’s been shaken viciously, set in the hot sun and taped with an “open me” sign. We can also look to Brown itself as a causal factor: It is a prominent, privileged institution known for an activist streak and viewpoints that flirt with controversy. People are rightfully curious about what’s stirring there and how it fits into the national picture, or doesn’t.

Some of the most recent examples of activism at Brown include involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement, an initiative to make the university a “sanctuary” for refugees and undocumented immigrants and resistance to President Trump’s immigration ban that was issued through executive order in January.

Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, joined 47 other university presidents in a condemnation of the immigration ban, which they classified as a “threat to American higher education and America’s founding principles.” In a letter sent directly to the Brown community, Paxson also detailed ways in which the university plans to act in protection of its international constituency.

Those measures will not include the pursuit of sanctuary status, as per an official statement issued in November. “While we wish we could offer absolute protection to members of our community who are threatened by possible changes in policy,” Paxson wrote, “it would be irresponsible to promise protections that we cannot legally deliver.”

The statement was a response to pro-sanctuary petitions and in-person protests carried out by a mix of students, faculty and local residents. One protest drew more than 400 to the university’s Main Green, and tied to the widespread #SanctuaryCampus movement, which urges universities to provide funds and other protections for vulnerable community members.

Response to the university’s position has been mixed. Alumna Ashley Minihan (class of 1998), for one, urged Brown to “follow Columbia’s lead,” pointing out that Brown’s defense for its choice falls flat when its peer institution, Columbia University, declared sanctuary status this past November. As Minihan argues, “It is difficult to imagine that the legal advice Columbia was given differed significantly from whatever Brown received.”

Brown senior Daniel Meyer (class of 2017) penned an op-ed in December, which chastised Paxson for what he perceived as a lack of boldness. When asked if his views changed in the months since his piece first ran in the Brown Daily Herald, Meyer said largely not, apart from his thoughts on the argument for Brown serving as a sanctuary campus. “I wrote that President Paxson had little to lose by following Columbia’s lead and making Brown a sanctuary campus,” he says, “but I now think she might have made the right call.” He pointed to Harvard’s example of having offered protections without official sanctuary status, on the grounds of wanting to avoid counterproductive attention. On February 13, Brown joined 16 other universities in filing an amicus brief in support of a legal challenge to the immigration ban.

None of this activism and debate is new to Brown, of course. University records show that activism is “almost as old as the college itself,” dating back to its foundation in the late 1700s.

This legacy remains a major draw for students, including me as an applicant a decade ago. It’s important to remember, however, Brown’s foundation was quintessentially conservative and privileged. Like other peer institutions of its age, the university was for a very long time a bastion of elitism, and slow to substantially integrate community members who were not privileged, white men.

My mentor in graduate school, James A. Miller (“Jim”), felt like an un-welcomed interloper when he matriculated in the late 1960s. As a working class black student, whose parents came to Rhode Island as a dock worker and a housemaid as part of the Great Migration, his experience on campus was a thorny one. He recalls being one of about six black students admitted in his year, and also that more than one faculty member recommended betting against graduation.

He was bullied by white classmates routinely, both physically and emotionally. When Jim asked one professor why black literature was not taught in the English department, the professor retorted tersely: “Because it is not important.” And, at a breaking point, Jim “staged a knife fight” to back down his bullies. Only a Hail Mary save kept him at the university, after a white student went to a dean in his defense. That student, Ira Magaziner, was a prominent campus activist who spearheaded Civil Rights work as well as education reform.

I was gobsmacked by that story when Jim first shared it, since it’s so wildly different from the Brown that I have known since the 2000s. Moreover, it’s evidence of how far the institution has come, and how instrumental activism was in getting us here. Indeed, today “Brown” is more or less shorthand for East Coast liberalism laced with a strong dose of the radical ‘60s.

That reputation is not always regarded kindly. In January of this year, for instance, Boston Magazine ran a feature about multiple New England campuses with a headline that read, “How Liberal Professors Are Ruining College.” The author alleges that these institutions are cultivating a “stigmatized minority” of conservatives, and emphasizing activism over academics. Brown was not named per se, but it did bring to mind a protest in 2013 over a lecture by the then-commissioner of the NYPD Raymond Kelly, which resulted in the cancellation of the event shortly after it started and garnered national attention.

That kind of argument is exaggerated, yes, but it’s unfair to dismiss out of hand entirely. I experienced very similar sentiments firsthand during my time as an undergraduate, when concerned relatives often wondered aloud if I’d signed up for a liberal cult instead of a top-tier education. In my work for the university’s endowment fund, it was a consistently hot-button factor: Either something that motivated people to donate, or impelled them to distance themselves (with a strong lecture on the side in the course of saying “no”).

Many alumni balked at initiatives like the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice (formed in 2003 to investigate Brown’s historical involvement with slave labor and the transatlantic slave trade) and the so-called ROTC ban (which was instituted in 1969 amidst the Vietnam War and rescinded in 2015). For some it represented a hard turn to the left that they, as conservatives, wouldn’t support. For others it represented an over-emphasis on activism in general, which they chafed against regardless of the cause.

My entry into Brown was colored by an intense activist spirit, having arrived in the wake of rancorous debates over the First Amendment. In 2001, conservative commentator David Horowitz paid for a purposely incendiary ad that ran in the Brown Daily Herald, which argued against reparations under a headline that read, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist, Too!”

At the core of the rift that ensued were questions of boundaries and responsibility. Is there a tipping point in our support for freedom of speech? Do we, as members of an influential community, have a responsibility that exceeds campus lines when we react?

In the wake of 9/11, those same questions were pushed even further, when something as simple as a walk through campus became an emotional pressure test. When the university’s policy-insured inclusiveness warded off dangerous groupthink, we passed. We had a tool that reminded us to be careful rather than reactionary, even when we didn’t want to be. When that inclusiveness became a license for hurtfulness, we failed. It seemed that some students and faculty were testing how far they could push the envelope – just because they could.

Where Brown goes now in this new heated moment is not easy to predict. My hope is that it continues to be a campus where diverse opinions, not just one, flourish. We need institutions like Brown to push our thinking, and to do so carefully and responsibly. I would also encourage local residents to consider themselves partners in this, with a responsibility and a right to observe, engage and push back if necessary.