As eight Brown University members of Students for a Democratic Society await possible university sanctions, their case has led many students, parents, and faculty to question whether Brown is living up to its reputation as a haven for progressive thought and action.
On October 18, 50 members and supporters of SDS protested outside a Brown University Corporation meeting and entered University Hall to present a petition demanding transparency and more room for student participation. SDS members say the corporation runs Brown in secret, making major decisions about issues like financial aid at closed-door meetings and keeping their meeting minutes sealed for 50 years.
SDS had previously entered two corporation meetings to present demands, and members say they met police resistance for the first time on October 18. Brown Department of Public Safety officials, along with other university personnel, barred students from entering University Hall. Several members managed to get past the police and up the stairs to present their petition to the chancellor of the corporation.
"Peaceful protest and demonstration are welcome at Brown," Brown said in a press release. "Activities that disrupt University business or events are prohibited, however, and individuals who violate University policy and Standards of Student Conduct are subject to disciplinary action." Administrators declined to respond to questions for this report.
A subsequent disciplinary hearing lasted for almost 20 hours over a two-day period last week, beginning at 10 am on Tuesday, December 9. Student witnesses who reported to the hearing at 1:30 pm on Tuesday were kept in seclusion until midnight, when administrators told them to return the next day at 8 am to present their statements. The university took 12 hours to present its case against the students. As the Phoenix was going to press, the outcome of the case had not yet been revealed.
Though some students believe SDS deserved punishment for breaking disciplinary codes, the harshness of Brown's response has mobilized many more undergrads, graduate students, prospective students, parents, faculty, alumnae, and community members in favor of SDS. Hundreds of supporters have sent letters, made phone calls, and attended meetings with administrators demanding that all charges be dropped.
Supporters include Shannah Kurland, a 1990 Brown graduate who is now strategy and development coordinator for the Olneyville Neighborhood Association. She points out that divestment from South Africa, the New Curriculum, and the Africana Studies program all resulted from student protest at Brown.
Kurland's point draws attention to the conflict between Brown's reputation as a progressive institution and the reality of its decision to charge students for entering a "closed building."
"At what point do you realize that maybe Brown isn't a progressive place?" asks one of the charged students.
Simon Liebling, a freshman at Brown and a member of SDS who served as a witness during the hearing, says that when he came to Brown, he expected to find the "image of progressive action" that Brown had sold him. After seeing the university's response to student activism, Liebling says, "I feel like I was duped."