Letters to Paxson: Responses to Her Letter to the Community

Numerous students wrote responses to the Corporation’s decision to not divest from coal, Ray Kelly coming to Brown, and President Christina Paxson’s responses to student backlash and protests. Here are a few of the letters sent by students and alumni.

President Christina Paxson:

Ray Kelly was invited to speak as part of an endowed lecture. The lecture’s stated goals are to bring “prominent individual who has made distinguished contributions to public service.” Endowed lectures are by definition honorific in an University setting. I fundamentally disagree that our University should honor an individual responsible for instituting and carrying out racist policing strategies for 12 years.

I also find it reprehensible you found it appropriate to apologize for the entire Brown community when there are clear divisions on this issue. By so doing you betray the very ideal you tout: you are not enshrining critical discourse in this university rather you are homogenizing the discussion by making an a priori judgement that what students did was wrong. Did you reach out to the student body, listen to diverse perspectives, and release a statement taking these different considerations in mind? Considering the speed of your condemnation, I doubt you appropriately partook in the intellectual rigor you endorse in formulating your argument. I applaud you for calling a community forum tonight, that is a necessary step for us to move forward. However, I would like to see a statement from your office apologizing for the unnecessarily prescriptive nature of your email to the community, using your authority to frame the debate in a manner that did not honor the ideals it endorsed.

Ray Kelly is an embattled public figure whose interests lie in defending his policies and public record. He agreed to come speak at Brown precisely because the endowed lecture legitimated his policies. He is not interested in learning, and no amount of “tough questions” is going to change his mind. The structure of a lecture is vertical and does offer an ideal context for the “free exchange of ideas.” A Q&A structure further emphasizes the vertical nature of this event. Originally the event was planned as an hour-long lecture by Kelly with 10-20 minutes for questions. There was no mention in any of the event descriptions and advertisements of the controversial nature of his policies. It gave only one side of the argument. The onus should not be exclusively on students and victims of his policies to problematize his policies. Moreover, he should not get our institutional stamp of approval. In my opinion, that is a disservice to the critical discourse of our University. That’s why we called for it to be canceled. The purpose of the protest was to forcefully interject opposing views that had been marginalized by the very structure and execution of the event.

I think the protests have been successful in creating a campus-wide discussion about his policies, but also about the nature of critical discourse at this University. Both valuable in and of themselves; I doubt that the Taubman Center event sans student action would have generated the same amount of critical discourse we see now. I agree that ideally, he would have eventually been given the opportunity to speak. That was the plan– to interrupt him several times but eventually let him finish, and then ask him questions. However, given the emotional nature of the event, I am not at all surprised that community members, whose human dignity was being put up for debate, were unwilling to hear him speak. To HONOR the individual responsible for creating a legal order that institutionalizes racist policing, and then be surprised that certain members of our community are deeply hurt by it shows a tremendous amount of naiveté. If my human dignity was being put up for debate, I would also want to stop it– especially knowing that the person attacking my human dignity by defending his policies is not interested in learning from opposing views. He was going to defend his policies: that is an affront to human dignity. Even if he did not engage in explicitly racist discourse, defending stop and frisk is racist and thus attacks the human dignity of members of our community. I could not stand by and let our University honor him and let him injure people I love and care about for the sake of having an intellectually engaging experience.

Free speech (as any right) does not exist in a vacuum, it has limits. Hate speech is an example of such a limit. To pretend that there are no limits of free speech in our community is also a disservice to the critical discourse of our University. The better question would be, as a community, what are our limits of free speech? When does free inquiry conflict with the stated ethics of our University?

The University failed in its role of creating a safe space that would facilitate the free exchange of ideas and offer an opportunity for ALL students to engage in an intellectually enriching experience. There are plenty of ways to bring a speaker to campus that don’t make a normative claim on the speaker or his policies. When Columbia brought Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to speak through the World Leaders Forum, they clearly were not taking a normative stance on his deplorable policies. Brown did not do that here, and that is a shame. That is why I protested and canceled the event. Had the Taubman Center planned, advertised, and executed it differently, with these things in mind, I don’t think there would have been the same push to silence him. However, given these conditions, I would do it again. In my opinion, free speech and critical inquiry should be limited when it turns into honoring a debate about the human dignity of fellow community members. In this case and in my opinion, the harm caused to students and community members by our University honoring and allowing him to speak outweighed the benefits other students would have garnered from hearing him.

I hope you will take these thoughts into consideration. I look forward to speaking with you tonight.

Ever true,

Sean Luna McAdams, ’14

Dear President Paxson,

Just wanted to thank you for your letter regarding the Ray Kelly protest yesterday. Not because I agree with you, but because I believe that the tone and content of your letter will surely fuel further critical thinking in the Brown community about how power operates, privileging the rights of some over the rights of others, and fuel further participation by Brown students (especially those of color) in protests against racial injustice at Brown and in Providence.

To say that a successful, national media-capturing protest against one of the nation’s most outspoken proponents of institutional racism — organized by a coalition of students of color, Providence community organizations, and city residents who’ve been directly brutalized by the racialized policing practices Kelly advocates — to say that such an event is a “sad day for the Brown community” reflects a troubling misapprehension of what I consider to be the point of education, and a troubling lack of empathy for the people (some of them among the protestors) who have been systematically dehumanized by Kelly’s policies.

Protests are impolite. They are meant to be seen. And this protest was executed well, in the only way it could possibly have succeeded in impacting national discourse. Punish the students for their impropriety, if you so choose, for breaking rules, but do not condescend them, and do not for a minute think that what they have accomplished is anything less than honorable — maybe not be the standards of the Ivy League — but certainly by the standards of justice, by the standards of human decency.

As an alum, I couldn’t be more proud to be associated with those students. And I do believe that the strength of their values, their understanding of how race and power work in present-day American, and there commitment to justice (in a robust sense of the word) has been informed by their time at Brown. I learn some of those things there too. You and the university should take pride in that, and be careful not to lose their trust any further.

I truly hope you read and consider the community’s responses to yesterday’s event, and know that mine is intended in a spirt of kindness.


Sam Adler-Bell, ‘12.5

Hi President Paxson,

Yesterday, you expressed disappointment and sadness at the actions of students at Brown who “disrupted [Ray Kelly’s] lecture through shouting, persistent interruption, and coordinated chants.” You said it was “a sad day for the Brown community” because “preventing someone from speaking” is against Brown’s values. These values include the “free exchange of ideas.”

Given how important Brown’s values are to you, I decided to do some research myself into some of Brown’s other values. Here’s what I found!

In “Principles of the Brown University Community,” I discovered that Brown values “individual integrity and self-respect.” As a self-respecting New Yorker and aspiring anti-oppression writer full of integrity, I stand with protestors who would not allow a man responsible for the violation of human bodies and destruction of communities across my hometown to be given a platform to speak his mind. I find it to be a great display of integrity and self-respect (not to mention bravery) to speak out in defense of one’s bodily safety and security, as so many protestors did in yesterday’s action. So it sounds like we’re on the same page on that one.

Another thing that’s important to Brown is “honest and responsible action” in pursuit of the aforementioned personal integrity. Yesterday’s protest was non-violent, effective, well-organized, and an appropriate escalation after several preceding steps including asking the University to un-invite Kelly and to provide more Q&A time (both denied). The individuals from Brown and the Providence community who took the time to call out racism on Brown’s campus were simply stating an obvious – if ugly – truth. Sounds honest and responsible to me.

And how about one more? This one we might differ on. Brown believes that “a socially responsible community provides a structure within which individual freedoms may flourish without threatening the privileges or freedoms of other individuals or groups.” Your reaction to the protestors at Kelly’s event certainly make clear that you value individual freedoms – so long as those freedoms are awarded to opinions and platforms you see fit to endorse. A socially responsible community should, yes, protect everyone’s freedom. But it should also facilitate safe, encouraging spaces for students with dissenting opinions to be heard. It should also allow for students to speak out when their University is misrepresenting them, or when their University is complicit in amplifying racist, classist opinions such as those of Ray Kelly. So perhaps we disagree here. I think “socially responsible community” means safety for everyone. Not just powerful folks.

Anyway, I could do this for longer but I’ve got to get back to work. So in sum, I hope you hear our collective voices and find a way to help this campus move forward productively. And at the very least, can you just divest from coal already?

All my best,

Leah Douglas, ’13

Dear President Paxson,

Thank you for the convening a forum on campus tonight. As an alum no longer residing in Providence, I regret being unable to attend and look forward to hearing about the continued conversation. However, I must respectfully point out that in your letter to the Brown community, you have repainted the events and circumstances of last week in an altogether bewildering way.

First, Ray Kelly was invited to speak at an Ivy League institution to give a prestigious endowed lecture on the topic of his policies in New York City. The students and community members who organized a direct action yesterday were protesting the invitation, the prestige, the endowment, and the policies. Kelly has not been denied the right to speak (the world hears him loud and clear:http://lmgtfy.com/?q=ray+kelly), and members of our community continue to have many outlets through which to challenge him. It is not his nor is it anyone’s right to be invited and paid to speak at an Ivy League institution. In fact, no rights have been infringed upon besides those of the innocent 88% of New Yorkers stopped and frisked, and it is irresponsible of you as the president of this university to perpetuate this insidious misinformation.

Your letter yesterday was condescending and deceptive, and I am baffled and disappointed by your mischaracterizations and swift condemnation of Brown students and community members who did, in fact, clearly approach the issue with “intellectual rigor, careful analysis, and a commitment to respectful dialogue and discussion.” It is insulting and oppressive for you, through your position of power, to reframe events as though these students and community members did not exhaust other options (organizing and circulating a petition, appealing to administrators, publishing editorials, and creating space for dialogue on campus) before resorting to successful direct action.

Please do not expect Brown community members to believe your tired and shallow platitudes about “confronting pressing societal issues through education, activism, engagement, and rigorous discourse.” Stringing these words together in a sentence in an attempt to denigrate those in our community who are truly actively engaging with their education and creating rigorous discourses (see: the national news circuit and your forum tonight) is one more transparent example of the way you have used your power this week to privilege the voices and interests of the few and powerful over all others.

It is indeed “a sad day for the Brown community” when one of the most well-known racists of our time is not only honored by Brown, but apologized to and legitimized by the president of the university. It is indeed “a sad day for the Brown community” when the president of the university sends the message that, when faced with injustice and systemic flaws, Brown community members should keep our mouths shut, raise our hands, cross our fingers, and hope to be called on in the Q&A.

This is not what I learned from four years in Brown’s classrooms and lecture halls, and it is not what our faculty teach. Why are we hearing it from you?

I will be grateful to Brown University for the rest of my life for the unparalleled experiences I have had on campus. It is from this immense gratitude that I write to you tonight and call upon you to reconsider and publicly amend your letter’s hasty and harmful conclusions.


Brenda Zhang ’13

Organized by Ragna Rök Jóns 

All Images via Google Images

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