BROWN UNIVERSITY President Ruth Simmons has exhumed the most divisive issue in Brown's recent history: slavery reparations. "Brown U. to Examine Debt to the Slave Trade" was the headline in the March 13 New York Times that announced the creation of a university committee on "slavery and justice."
The Times story ran exactly two years after one of the most prominent racial controversies at Brown. On March 13, 2002, The Brown Daily Herald published an incendiary advertisement by conservative commentator David Horowitz contesting the idea of reparations for slavery. A coalition of second-generation hippies and victimized minority students reacted by seizing the entire press run of The Herald.
The university did little to defend The Herald. It first issued a tepid defense of freedom of speech and then, four days later, it released another statement that condemned The Herald for a "deliberately and deeply hurtful advertisement." Not surprisingly, a faculty forum that was formed ostensibly to debate the issue featured one speaker after another emoting over "civil rights" and eschewing "hate speech."
Dissent was demonized and dismissed, and consequently dialogue perished. Brown failed as a liberal institution that spring. The new committee on "slavery and justice" is in a sense a good-faith attempt to engage in the dialogue that never happened in 2001. But there is one small problem: Where is the other side of the dialogue?
The student representation on the committee ranges from the liberal president of the College Democrats to the leader of Brown's Young Communist League. And the chairman of the committee, Prof. James Campbell, was also the panelist on the faculty forum convened in the wake of the mass theft of The Herald who denounced one of the editors as a "cynical opportunist."
The message seems to be clear: Conservative students and iconoclastic professors need not apply. The inaugural event, "Unearthing the Past," offered students the first glimpse of what kind of "dialogue" we can expect over the course of the next two years. While it was certainly informative, there were some aspects that were also disturbing.
In particular, during the question-and-answer session, one of the panelists, Prof. Joanne Melish, essentially equated conservatism with racism. With all due respect to Professor Melish, her statement reflected a degree of ignorance: She clearly had a falsely stereotypical conception of conservatism. The panelists do not speak for the committee, but at the same time the committee is responsible for organizing such lectures and forums.
I certainly hope that Brown students will have the opportunity to hear from speakers who recognize that there is a conservative side to this debate -- one that amounts to far more than waving the Confederate flag and publishing polemical advertisements in student newspapers.
I have been to the committee's Web site and looked at the calendar of events that runs into next fall. So far I have seen nothing to indicate that the "conservative" perspective will be a part of the process.
At the close of my four years here, it is tempting to think that Brown has changed. In the spring of 2001, the Undergraduate Council of Students passed a resolution that condoned the theft of The Brown Daily Herald by a coalition of students who were outraged that it had the audacity to publish an anti-reparations advertisement. This spring, the council passed a resolution on academic freedom stipulating that the "obstruction of invited campus speakers, destruction of campus literature, or any other efforts to inhibit the civil exchange of ideas should not be tolerated."
And in 2001, when the College Republicans tried to invite Horowitz to Brown, they were warned that Horowitz's presence on campus might ignite a race riot. Brown's experience with Horowitz, tragically, is not unusual for this school. When Republican activist Ralph Reed spoke here, before my freshman year, students shouted him down; Dinesh D'Souza and Ward Connerly encountered similar hostilities in earlier years. This year, the College Republicans successfully invited Horowitz, who went out of his way to praise the civility of the student audience.
Yet Brown as an institution has changed very little. Institutional change is necessary for two reasons: First, the composition of the study body changes completely every four years. And second, it was the administration and the faculty that enabled many of the excesses of the Horowitz controversy.
Student initiative is therefore not enough to ensure the survival of intellectual diversity and academic freedom. If Brown is to be reformed, it must ultimately be at the institutional level.
If this exploration into the history of Brown is not to degenerate into a convention of the NAACP, President Simmons must act quickly to ensure that contrary voices are represented on the committee and in the series of lectures, forums and debates that are planned for the next two years.
To the extent that the committee ignores the lessons of the Horowitz controversy, it is a failure in the making. Will its failure be Brown's failure?