Scott MacKay Commentary: Brown University Celebrates 250 Years

Feb 28, 2014

Beginning this week, Brown University celebrates its 250th birthday.. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay kicks off our week long Brown series and ponders the college’s role in Rhode Island.

Brown University has been a looming presence in Rhode Island since its founding.
Credit Courtesy Brown University

Brown is perched atop the tallest of the seven hills on which Providence was built. For its first two centuries the university reflected this lofty status on its College Hill cloister. It was an all-male institution that launched the well-born, Yankee elite to the upper reaches of banking, medicine, law and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Those days are gone. Brown is no longer a waspy bastion surrounded by a city of Roman Catholic immigrant toilers.

Yet Rhode Islanders still view our lone Ivy League college with a mixture of pride, envy and disdain.

Who can forget the 1990 mayoral campaign, when the Democratic candidate wanted to tax the campus property, running a television spot that said ``A janitor at Brown University pays more in taxes than Brown University itself.’’

Or the campus campaign in the 1980s that resulted in students to stock the infirmary with suicide pills in the event of a nuclear war? That one drew international attention and provided much fodder for local radio talk shows.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, there seemed to be a protest every day. Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War fervor and the women’s rights demonstrations gripped the campus. This grated on some of the locals, who viewed these outbursts as the frivolous posturing of spoiled rich kids.

Yet what started as collegiate rabble-rousing led to major change both on campus and in the wider Rhode Island community. Brown would carve a reputation as a strong undergraduate university, the most liberal of the Ivies, and the first to have an African-American woman, Ruth Simmons, as its president. It was a Brown graduate, Fritz Pollard, who broke the color line in pro football.

Rhode Islanders have long been admitted to Brown at higher rates than students from elsewhere. The last two governors of Rhode Island, Don Carcieri and Lincoln Chafee, are Brown grads. The president of the nation’s largest bank, Brian Moynihan, was educated on College Hill, as was Rich Lupo, owner of a Providence rock-and-roll club. The children of presidents Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy went there.

Who can claim Brown nowadays? Well, the school still educates the aristocracy yet has morphed into much more of a meritocracy.

The best window into Brown’s evolution as its celebrates its birthday is an upcoming book, `The Brown Reader’ which features 50 writers recollections of life at Brown.

For some, Brown was the foundation of their futures. M. Charles Bakst, the longtime Providence Journal political columnist, was educated there and never really left. He met his wife at the college and worked on the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper, which paved his career road. He made his mark on our small state at the Rhode Island Statehouse, a short walk from campus.

There are those who roamed the world far to find fame. Pam Constable, international correspondent for the Washington Post also wrote for the student paper. To her 1970s campus the Daily Herald was a ``semi-grown up outlet- irreverent and indignant but grammatically correct.’’

Humorist S. J. Perelman recounts that the closest thing he ever came to an orgy was at Roaring 20s campus dance that featured flasks of bathtub gin and cutting in on other male  classmates female dates. Later generations write of their experiments with every sexual orientation and practice as well as a dizzying array of illicit drugs.

Lisa Birnbach, who became famous writing the definitive handbook of preppy style: ``Every one of us – no matter what age of gender or sexual preference – owns a blue blazer, ’’ was the sentiment that defined her place in the cultural firmament. At Brown, she says she ``concentrated in semiotics and minored in figuring out who I was.’’

While Brown is known for liberalism, not everyone emerges from Van Wickle Gate writing for the New York Review of Books. ``No parents I assume ever sent their child to Brown in the hope of inspiring a radical and religious turn to the right. That would include my own secular and liberal Jewish parents,’’ writes David Klinghoffer.

Klinghoffer rebelled against what he saw as the ``addled liberalism’’ of Brown in the 1980s to become an editor at William F. Buckley’s National Review.

Robin  Green writes of Brown in the early 1960s, when the Ladd Observatory peered imperiously down on Providence. ``When people today act all impressed that I went to Brown,’’ writes Green, ``I always feel impelled to set the record straight. Yes I went there but I was a townie,’’ i.e. a daughter of working-class Providence who felt the sting of class and ethnic prejudice.

``I loved the fact that the bucolic Brown campus was in the middle of this very gritty city with a tremendous  sort of ethnic legacies, and corrupt or quasi-corrupt politicians and an active mob, and diners literally on the wrong side of the tracks,`` writes liberal journalist David Corn of time on campus in the 1980s. ``As a young journalist there was a lot to observe on the margins of campus and beyond.’’

Closer to home, Bill Reynolds, the Providence Journal sports writer, recalls being far more in thrall to basketball than attending class. Yet, he writes, that Brown gave him confidence. ``Never again would I be intimidated around academic people, never again would I be impressed with pretensions.’’

So no one has a monopoly on Brown. One can argue that it has always been a bundle of contradiction. The founding family, the Providence Browns, had one brother, John, who was a notorious slave-trader. His sibling Moses, became a Quaker and staunch abolitionist.

Brown has always been wrapped up in Rhode Island and especially, Providence. The university is one of the state’s most important economic 21st century linchpins, especially in the rebirth of the city’s ancient Jewelry District. Brown is ours. We are better off for that. Here’s to a happy 250th birthday and many, many more. And yes, Go Bears!

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be hears every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics blog at