In the months leading up to November’s presidential election, Terry Brown, Fredonia Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, wouldn’t publicly say which candidate she supported. Concerned about alienating anyone on campus, she thought it better to remain neutral.
Now, five months after Donald Trump’s election, Brown is at a crossroads. Still hesitant to create divisiveness in an already-polarized country, Fredonia’s chief academic officer can’t sit idly as she watches policies from Washington undermine the campus’s mission:
“If this were just about partisan issues — if this were just about debates over a woman’s right to choose, or debates over gay rights, choose your partisan issue — but where we are right now is about who we are as a country. I can’t find any other way to say it, but the assault on truth goes directly to the mission of a university. That is within my realm of responsibility. Everything we do here is based on a belief in a truth, facts, (on) the importance of evidence, and science. The undermining of science should not be a partisan issue.”
Our conversation, which took place inside University Commons, linked the seemingly disparate politics of Washington D.C. to the current realities on Fredonia’s campus:
Jon-Ryan Maloney: Last time when we spoke I asked what you spend your time thinking about, and we talked about making higher education affordable. I imagine you’re still thinking about that, but I’m also wondering what has changed in the last six months.
Dr. Terry Brown: Well, honestly, I’ve had to take some time to reflect on what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I see a country that I love going through serious turmoil — a kind of turmoil that I think is a threat to our future and a threat to the world order. So I’ve had to reflect on what part I can play and how I can serve, thinking of my father who passed away a few years ago, thinking of his service to this country as a Marine and as career civil servant. It’s a question of what part can I play, and it’s not about carrying the banner for a liberal cause. It’s no longer partisan. I want to join with Democrats and Republicans, with Libertarians, whatever their perspective is, and have conversations about where we agree. What are the fundamental ideals we agree on that are irrelevant to partisan differences? So I thought one thing I could do was to facilitate those conversations on campus, those kinds of conversations that would bring us together to learn something based in fact, and then to have conversations about it from a variety of perspectives. That’s why I initiated Democracy 101, and invited faculty to come forward to teach a lesson on some fundamentals about this American moment. We had a talk on what the Constitution says about the powers of Presidents. We had a talk on explaining what the legal definition of terrorism is. We’ve had great talks each week, and we’re not running out of topics that people need to understand. One thing I can do in my role as the chief academic officer is to promote an opportunity for learning for all of us. What people would say is this huge teachable moment in the history of our country. So I continue to do my work as a citizen in the evenings and on the weekends, but I am reflecting on what my responsibility is as Provost. Is it my responsibility to stay neutral, or is it time for me to speak out? If this were just about partisan issues — if this were just about debates over a woman’s right to choose, or debates over gay rights, choose your partisan issue — but where we are right now is about who we are as a country. I can’t find any other way to say it, but the assault on truth goes directly to the mission of a university. That is within my realm of responsibility. Everything we do here is based on a belief in a truth, facts, (on) the importance of evidence, and science. The undermining of science should not be a partisan issue. So I reflect on that and I think, “Okay, are you going to stand by as a provost? Or are you going to speak out? And if you speak out, are you ready for what the consequences would be?”
JRM: And what would the consequences be for you?
Dr. Brown: Oh, I think that there are people who would say it is not my place to take a stand and that I shouldn’t participate in the debate. Public criticism is a consequence. I don’t want to alienate anyone who is a supporter. It’s hard to speak out and not alienate those who voted for Donald J. Trump.
JRM: But at some point I feel like you have to make a decision.
Dr. Brown: You do. I think I do.
JRM: Have you made that decision?
Dr. Brown: Yes, because I can’t live with myself if I don’t. And so that’s why I’m talking to you. I’m the program chair for an annual meeting of university planners in Washington D.C. in the summer. It’s a conference of about 1,500 people who will be meeting, and I’m in charge of the program. We’ve invited speakers on a range of topics and perspectives. We’re inviting people from the Trump administration to speak. I hope people from the Department of Education come so that we can engage in these conversations together. I know that there are many people in the Trump administration who would engage in important conversations about the future of higher education, so we’re reaching out to them. But in the mean time there’s a cloud over this country that’s affecting us not just internally, but in relation to the rest of the world. And so you asked me, will I speak out? Yes. Now, I’ve also drawn a line between being a citizen and being a provost. In my citizen role, I’m partisan. In the evenings, on the weekends, I do my work as a citizen and I take a stand on specific issues that are partisan. I call my congressman. I write a letter to the White House. In my role as Provost, which is more public, I’m focused on those issues that directly affect us as an institution. The defunding of science — I was just reading this morning that there are so many positions in the government that are unfilled by scientists. There are important reasons why the government needs scientists. Those positions are going unfilled. There are going to be cuts to science research. All of these things are very concerning to me. The cuts to the arts are deeply concerning, and directly related to what we do here, including the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Our campus has directly benefited from both the NEA and NEH. Every year we have a Big Read on campus led by the library. That will no longer be. There are many ways in which our campus will be diminished if the proposed budget by President Trump is approved. I know that people don’t see and experience directly the impact of these policies, but that’s what I think the other part of service is–not just serving for yourself, but for others, and maybe for a generation you will never be a part of.
JRM: That David Frum article that came out in The Atlantic (How to Build an Autocracy) — he painted a picture four years in the future that doesn’t look terribly different, but his argument was that this is more of a slow erosion of people caring.
Dr. Brown: That’s exactly right.
JRM: In our last conversation we talked about training students to be part of a democracy. What’s happening in Washington seems to go against what we stand for here.
Dr. Brown: If we let it. The hopeful part of me sees a public galvanized. I read both Republicans and Democrats, and I’ve seen more bipartisan agreement on certain things than we’ve seen in a long time. I remain an idealist, and as concerning as this moment is for us, I believe we will be better as a result of it. I’m seeing more people reading the paper, more people are looking for good news sources, more people are writing their congressmen. We’re seeing more signs of a healthy democracy. It can be from whatever perspective you want to take. Just participate. Find ways to talk across your differences with your neighbor or a friend that’s civil, where you listen to one another. It’s so hard now because it feels so personal. It’s hard to have those kinds of conversations. That’s why we need faculty who are committed to creating the freedom of their students to speak their minds, even if the perspective is unpopular. As faculty we need to work extra hard now on that, because it’s a very volatile time.
JRM: I did an interview with Dr. (Cedric) Howard (Vice President for Student Affairs) to get his perspective on who we are as a campus. We talked about competing with schools like Geneseo to say we’re a public Ivy. His argument was that we’re not that. If I ask you who we are as Fredonia, how do you say that?
Dr. Brown: I believe that we are a campus that’s committed to opportunities for all students. That we are living the democratic principle of opportunity and making the dream possible, accessible, affordable for students. If we can embrace that, we can be a destination campus for students who may come from families where their parents didn’t go to college — which is about a third of our students — or come from families that aren’t sure they can afford college, which is also a good number of our students. Students who, for one reason or another, may not be at the top of their class in high school. Students with a range of preparation, but who we know can succeed in college with our support if they’re committed. There are many students out there.
JRM: As an administrator, how do you create the resources here to make it so that those students are as likely to succeed as possible? How do you think about changing…
Dr. Brown: We’re doing exactly that. We have to reconsider where we invest our resources, and we have to make trade-offs. I think that our students need more support in advising than what we’re currently providing them, and what our faculty alone are able, with all their commitments, to provide them. Advising is an area where we need to make more of an investment, but in order to do that we’re going to have to make decisions about where those resources will come from. That won’t be popular, but I believe that if we put students at the center of our decision-making, and we involve people in decisions like that, we’ll be making the right decision. That’s one example. Fredonia should have a higher retention rate than what it has. I’ve been saying that now for a few years.
JRM: Is it at 79 percent?
Dr. Brown: Yes, 79 percent. We should be in the eighties. Given our academic profile we should be in the eighties. I think that with hard work on the part of faculty, staff, and students, we can get to 85 percent. But that will take time, and it will take an investment, and a reallocation of resources, and reconsideration of how we do things. Right now we have some physical obstacles. Right now, student services are located in eight to ten buildings on campus. Depending on what your need is, you may need to go to LoGrasso, to Gregory, to Williams, to Thompson, to Maytum, the library.
JRM: It’s confusing.
Dr. Brown: It is! It’s very confusing. It’s daunting. We have a vision of a student success corridor going from Williams, to Jewett, to the library, and locating all the student support services, academic and non-academic, in that corridor, culminating with the academic learning commons in the library where students go for academic support. The idea is that you may go into the learning commons with your cup of coffee and the advising center has office hours, and you can ask the adviser sitting there any question. They’re that accessible. I don’t know that our students right now would know where to go to find our full-time, professional adviser that we have. We need to make all of that more accessible. That’s obvious. The hard part is working with the state to get the funding for that kind of renovation. It’s not for new buildings, it’s for renovation of existing buildings.
JRM: What are the obstacles to making that happen?
Dr. Brown: Internally, I don’t think there are obstacles. The only internal challenge is that those offices right now are all over the place. They’re used to working on their own, and what we need to do is work with them to help them work in more synergy with one another to provide student support. And we have such good people here at Fredonia that that won’t be hard.
You know, I want to say something about this question about who we are. Our mission goes directly to what it means to be a democracy. We need to have affordable, accessible, high-quality higher education available to our citizens so that they can get the knowledge and training that they need to be productive in the workplace and engaged as citizens.
JRM: After Donald Trump’s election, what is the worst possible scenario for public education if we didn’t do anything?
Dr. Brown: The defunding of public education — that’s where the power is — in the ability to fund or not to fund. It’s what the government does. As states have backed off of supporting higher education we’ve become much more dependent on our students and their families for their tuition. And they’re more dependent on financial aid, which comes from the federal government. So the federal government now has more of a stake, and is funding more than the states are in public higher education. So if the federal government begins its defunding of public higher education, it will shift that to states, where states are unable to take it up, and it will likely drive up the cost to the families in tuition and it will make it even harder for some people to get to college.
JRM: Undermining everything that we’re trying to do.
Dr. Brown: Right. That’s what my fear is, among many.
JRM: Can you say what other fears come to mind?
Dr. Brown: It’s already happening. The defunding of science. The defunding of the arts. These are things that will undermine our work. There’s a plan to defund support for international programs. That will hurt us.
JRM: International academic programs?
Dr. Brown: Both international academic programs, and then another thing that’s happening is that — I just read a survey done by a company called Royal, they’re a higher education research company — they interviewed over 2,000 international students, and a third of them said they would not consider coming to the United States because of the fears they have about how they would be treated. The travel ban is having a chilling effect on our ability to attract international students. As a result, two of the flagships, the research centers in SUNY, are reducing their entrance requirement for international students. They’re reducing it well below ours in order to lower the hurdle and mitigate the loss they anticipate from this decline in international students. When they do that, we will take a hit, and we can’t afford that. We’ve been working for years now to create a more global campus, where our international students feel welcome just like the next person. The presence of the international students on this campus is so important for what we’re trying to achieve. So it’s here, it’s happening. It’s not a fear in the future — we’re experiencing it.
JRM: If I were a student who came from the suburbs of Buffalo, I might never notice the importance of having international students. I might say, “Who cares?” What would you say to that student?
Dr. Brown: I would say … I think that one of the things we’re trying to do here is to prepare students who care.
JRM: Care about other people?
Dr. Brown: About everything. Students who are curious, who wonder, who want to know, who want to make a difference, who want to make things better, who want to help the next person. It just gets to me that people don’t care. I have to say that that’s what we’re doing here. Our job isn’t just to make sure that you get what you want in life, as a student. Not you, but…
JRM: No, it probably was me.
Dr. Brown: Our job isn’t just about you, and making you happy. That’s not what this work is, and that’s not why I get up and come to school. It’s not, “How many individual students can I make happy today? Or faculty and staff.” That’s not our work. Our work really is to prepare students to go out and to be part of a workplace, a community, a family, a society, in a way that makes it all better.
JRM: I read this book a couple years after college by a psychologist named James Hillman. The title was We’ve Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy And The World’s Getting Worse. One part that really struck me was that we’ve gone through this self-help era and personal happiness era, and his argument was that that’s not where happiness is. Happiness is actually being part of a political community, to be of service.
Dr. Brown: Well that’s great. I’d like to read that book, because I think that’s absolutely true. Everything tells us that personal happiness comes from relationship. Not just the intimate relationship of family and friends, but the relationship you have with your neighbor, and with your community, and with your co-workers. I think what makes those relationships work is people who care. I don’t get it when someone says they don’t care. I don’t understand that. I try to be patient — that’s what our work is, you have to be patient. I understand that some people say, “I’m not going to care until it affects me.” I also know that it will be too late when that happens for everyone, when we get to that point when everyone’s saying, “Oh, okay now I care.” There’s a lot more people who care now than cared before, you know?
JRM: I have one more question. This quote is from a New Yorker article by Yuval Noah Harari that I think you’ll find interesting, and I’m curious to hear how you’d respond. It was written in October before Trump was elected:
“No matter who wins in November, we will therefore be left with the task of creating a new story for the world. Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require new visions. In “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” I explore one such novel ideology that currently takes shape in Silicon Valley. If the Liberal Story promised salvation through globalization and liberalization, the new meta-narrative promises salvation through Big Data algorithms. Given enough biometric data and enough computing power, an external algorithm can understand humans better than we understand ourselves, at which point authority will shift away from humans to algorithms, and democratic elections and free markets—as well as authoritarian dictators and rigid ayatollahs—will be as obsolete as chain-mail armor and flint knives.”
Dr. Brown: That’s great. That’s really great, I’d like to read it. It’s really mind-blowing.
JRM: It takes on this huge scale of what could be coming. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Dr. Brown: My first impulse is to go back to what we were talking about. I believe salvation comes from the relationship between you and me. No matter what the technology, this is what matters — our humanity.