Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Town and Gown
As you may have heard, my employer has agreed to fork over $31.5 million to help keep Providence from going bankrupt.
This was a very contentious situation. A few weeks ago, I came to my office to find firefighters demonstrating outside. Their pensions are at risk in the city's financial crisis and they apparently didn't think the university was paying enough for the protection they provide.
The issues seem fairly simple on the one hand. Even with the $31.5 mil, the university pays the city about 1/4 of what it would pay in property taxes, given the immense value of its real estate. The regular folks in Providence see privileged kids from all over the country and the world getting their ticket to a life in the upper reaches of business, finance and academia that their kids have no chance for. Why should the city subsidize this enterprise when all the people see when the students come in September is New Jersey license plates?
That seems fair enough but the matter is somewhat more complicated. In the first place, that real estate wouldn't be worth whatever gazillions of dollars if it didn't happen to be Brown University. Take away the university and Providence turns into a ghost town. All those stores and restaurants on College Hill would close, the apartments would all go vacant, the price of taxable real estate would collapse. The university puts the city on the map. I'm sure all this was argued over in endless circles during the negotiations.
Still, I believe that it is both an ethical imperative, and long-term very much in the university's interest, to move aggressively to tear down the ivy-covered walls between the institution and its communities. (Metaphorically ivy-covered that is. Brown has a strict policy against ivy. If you see a wall with ivy, it's RISD. Just an odd factoid.) We need to democratize the way we do science and education. Sure, the opportunity to get a degree from Brown is always going to be limited to winners of an intense competition. We can certainly do better about the criteria, but the prize is only valuable because it's rare and that is essential to the prestige of the institution and much of its raison d'etre, which no protest from YT is ever going to change.
However, there is a lot that we can do differently. I'll have more to say on this theme.