Round 2: More Letters to Paxson

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. After last night’s community meeting and additional letters sent to Bluestockings, we decided to release a 2nd round of letters directed at President Paxson.

Hello President Paxson,

This is, surely, one of the many messages you have received from people who did not appreciate the method by which the email you sent to the student body, yesterday, addressed the events which occurred during Ray Kelly’s lecture.

I would like to start this message by noting that I found tonight’s open forum on student responses to the lecture and the protest to be an invaluable and model act on the part of university administration in providing a voice to the undergraduate student body. However, I must confess that I left the space feeling as if some thoughts of his remained unclear to you and others, thoughts that had nothing to do with Stop and Frisk and nothing to do with censorship.

Tonight, I left the space wondering why this conversation only happened now, and why it did not happen before Ray Kelly was ever offered the opportunity to speak on Brown’s campus and have a direct effect on student life. I am wondering why it is that you believe the rationale that ‘The actions of protesters went against the student code of conduct’ holds ground when the voices of students, on a matter as dire as their feelings of personal safety on campus, are being ignored by university administration. I do not believe that protesters were out of line, they challenged the university’s expectations set by the code of conduct when their own expectations of how the university should conduct itself, in terms of listening to students, were not met.

While you stated that the lack of centralization within Brown’s administration is one of the reasons why it is difficult to get student voices heard by each department, such as the Taubman Center, I find that statement to not hold ground. The fact that listening to students is a difficult task is not an adequate excuse for ignoring them when they speak out, especially in situations where their personal safety is threatened by the actions promoted by the people whom university officials invite.

I sends this message in hopes that you will reevaluate the priorities you hold, because he believes that it’s not every day that a large group of students ‘breaks the student code of conduct’ in this manner. The fact that it is exactly that rare happening which occurred yesterday should be a clear indication to you and Brown administration that there needs to be an increased awareness about student wants and needs, an awareness that can only be gained if student bodies have a direct say in who and what gets to affect the campus environment which so many of us call home.

Tonight, I left the space wondering why this conversation only happened now, and why it did not happen before Ray Kelly was ever offered the opportunity to speak on Brown’s campus and have a direct effect on student life. I am wondering why it is that you believe the rationale that ‘The actions of protesters went against the student code of conduct’ holds ground when the voices of students, on a matter as dire as their feelings of personal safety on campus, are being ignored by university administration. I do not believe that protesters were out of line, they challenged the university’s expectations set by the code of conduct when their own expectations of how the university should conduct itself, in terms of listening to students, were not met.

While you stated that the lack of centralization within Brown’s administration is one of the reasons why it is difficult to get student voices heard by each department, such as the Taubman Center, I find that statement to not hold ground. The fact that listening to students is a difficult task is not an adequate excuse for ignoring them when they speak out, especially in situations where their personal safety is threatened by the actions promoted by the people whom university officials invite.

I send this message in hopes that you will reevaluate the priorities you hold, because he believes that it’s not every day that a large group of students ‘breaks the student code of conduct’ in this manner. The fact that it is exactly that rare happening which occurred yesterday should be a clear indication to you and Brown administration that there needs to be an increased awareness about student wants and needs, an awareness that can only be gained if student bodies have a direct say in who and what gets to affect the campus environment which so many of us call home.

Thank you so much for your efforts to engage in and foster dialogue.

A concerned undergraduate student,

Edwin Silva, ’15

Dear President Paxson,

My name is King a senior concentrating in Human Biology. I want to make this brief as I can imagine how many emails you have already received and read about the Ray Kelly fiasco.

Thank you for making a stance after the event unfolded the way it unfortunately did. I attended the lecture and like most of the people in the room, I was looking forward to learning more about the issue and challenging Ray Kelly’s assumptions and racially problematic policies.

Like many of my peers, I was disappointed that a group of students decided to take that learning opportunity from me and the rest of the audience which included faculty members, students, police officers, and Providence community members. The cancellation of the event due to the in-room protest essentially negated the values that as a university we hold most dear: tolerance, open-mindedness, diversity, freedom of speech, and intellectual maturity.

I’d also like to thank you for organizing the discussion forum last night where more than 500 people attended. Allow me to apologize as well for some of my fellow Brunonians who addressed you rudely and tactlessly during the forum. I want to let you know that the silent majority supports you and appreciates your efforts as a university president. You won’t be able to please everybody but what you can do is stick to the values that our university should represent.

I want to end  this email with a quote from former Pres. Ruth Simmons that sums up my feelings and thoughts about the events that transpired in the past two days. I believe it  conveys an important message that captures the true meaning of a liberal arts education.

“I’m haunted by an encounter that I had as an undergraduate. A nameless girl, from my undergraduate years. I never heard her name and I never saw her after my undergraduate years. When I was your age, I was like many of such an age – confident of my opinions. I was passionate in my views, particularly about the manifest evil of apartheid and its adherents in South Africa. One day in the middle of a classroom discussion about apartheid, in which every student in the classroom agreed with me that apartheid was corrupt and indefensible, a lone young white South African woman spoke up in class and defended her way of life. Her voice was at once courageous and plaintive. “It’s our country, too,” she said. I have now forgotten all the comments of those in the class who spoke against the horror of apartheid, a hideous system that has now been justly abolished. But I have never forgotten these simple words spoken in opposition to my own. They taught me more about the need for discourse in the learning process than all the books I subsequently read. And I have regretted for 30 years that I did not engage this woman’s assertions instead of dismissing her as racist. And I have tried to set that mistake right for all of my career. Those moments will come to you in this place. You can look away, you can turn away when they do, or you can engage them and not look back 30 years later wishing that you had the opportunity to do it.” – Former President of Brown University, Ruth Simmons

Thanks so much once again and stay strong,

King Pascual, ’14

Proud POC and Brunonian

Dear President Paxson,

I attended yesterday’s community forum with little idea what to expect from it and I am happy to say that I was very pleased with what I saw. Instead of what I anticipated to be a complete dismissal of Tuesday’s protest and the efforts behind it, I heard a series of intelligent and thoughtful comments about the events of Tuesday afternoon. First off, I want to thank you for that. The community forum was necessary, and I can say that I believe it represented some of the best Brown University has to offer. That being said, it was not enough. It did not serve as a proper recognition of the way you received the protest or the people involved.

As a white woman, I have not been directly subjected to the kind of racial profiling that affects to many of the others participating in the protest. I feel extremely privileged and lucky that I am not forced to think about my skin color on a daily basis. But I was brought up to believe that I should be just as angry about the infringement of the rights of others as I am about my own. I was taught that whether or not a law or action personally impacts my life, it affects me, and all other human beings. For that reason, I left the protest on Tuesday afternoon feeling empowered and encouraged. More than that, I felt proud. Proud that Brown students and Providence community members had come together to change the conversation, to make a statement. I felt that, in a way I had not felt in my almost four years in college, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

I grew up in Providence, with close ties to Brown University from a young age. I saw first hand, before ever becoming an official member of Brown’s community, what kind of effect it has on Providence and Rhode Island. Students at my high school aspired to attend Brown University more than any other college. Many of my friends attended either Brown Summer High School or Summer at Brown. We all had either family or friends who worked for the university. We, as Providence residents, looked to Brown for employment, education and community. I say this because I am not sure that those coming from other areas to our campus quite understand the impact of Brown’s decisions on the community around it, the community that doesn’t consist of students or professors.

That is why, when the decision to protest Ray Kelly’s lecture was made, it was not just students involved. Members of Providence, who do not work or study at Brown, were so strongly impacted by the effects of allowing Ray Kelly to come to campus, they felt the need to speak up. President Paxson, you are responsible to them all, not just those who sit in your ivy covered halls. You are in a position of power, not just at Brown University, but also in the city of Providence. You addressed your letter to the Brown community, but we are not the only one’s reading it. Instead of engaging us first in conversation, you decided to make an example of us. You decided to belittle our actions and insult our intentions. I hope that when you sent this letter, you had no knowledge of the people you were addressing; no face to put on the mass of angry protesters you so vehemently disagreed with.

At the forum, you had the opportunity to make up for the letter, to address our concerns legitimately. You did nothing of the sort. You perpetuated the anger and thoughtlessness portrayed in your letter, without discussing its dismissive and patronizing nature. So I hope, that after last night’s forum, you will think again about your reaction and your words. I hope you will engage in real conversation, with not just us, your students, but with the Providence community at large.

Sincerely,

Liliana Gutmann-McKenzie, ‘14

President Paxson,

In labeling the actions of Ray Kelly protestors as “indefensible,” you demonstrate a radical lack of empathy for why students (many of color) might prefer to silence a racist voice in this country rather than, as usual, be silenced by one. Your use of “indefensible,” I think it’s fair to say, is itself racist.

You don’t have to change your mind about whether you think protesters should have shut down Kelly’s lecture. You should, however, interrogate your white privilege enough to come up with at least one defense of their actions. You should listen and understand how offensive it is for you (a rich white woman in power) to so totally dismiss the anger felt by a group of students and Providence community members (some poor, many of color, all relatively disempowered). That group refused to sit quietly and patiently while an architect of white supremacist policing got paid to lecture at, not debate with, them.

Rewind to this weekend when a group of people (mostly rich and white) politely decided that we should continue to invest in an industry paid to explode mountains; pollute the air; and drive climate change, all of whose effects disproportionately decimate low-income communities and communities of color.

Sometimes, I believe what we need most is impatience, not politeness. These protests worked. They drew attention to the issue of Brown’s uncritical invitation and the policy of stop-and-frisk. They sparked a conversation that outmatched any value a lecture and subsequent Q&A might have had. They drowned out racism in favor of student-community solidarity.

If you hope to lead this University, then you must do better.

We are waiting,

Kurt Ostrow, ‘13.5

Dear President Paxson,

I don’t think that there is anything I can say to you that was more effective than what Jenny Li, Floripa Olguin, Leila Blatt, Justice Gaines, or Will Furuyama had to say tonight about their own experiences and the power our university has in condoning and perpetuating racial violence.

I can add one thing, though. I did not aid in organizing the protest, but I did enthusiastically participate and am extremely grateful to the brave students who worked extremely hard with members of the Providence community to shut Ray Kelly down. I am adding my voice as another student writing to you to express sincere disappointment in you as a leader of this university.

Please listen to students of color at this university who have told you that they actually feel unsafe. Please listen to the Africana graduate student who was racially profiled on his way into the community forum you convened, by DPS at your university, and address their needs. Show us that you really value diversity and understand that this university inviting Ray Kelly to speak was a mistake.

Thank you for convening the community forum,

Anonymous Contributor, ’15

President Paxson,

I’d have to disagree. That day challenged Brown’s implicit endorsement of one our country’s most prominent proponents of structural racism. It brought Brown students and Providence community members together in solidarity. It prompted a campus-wide dialogue such as I’ve never seen at Brown. It garnered an outpouring of gratitude from folks oppressed by discriminatory policing across the country. Pretty far from sad in my book.

To me, framing this protest as an affront to free speech is a misleading negation of the political context at hand. Free speech has its limit: it ends where the human dignity of a group is called into question. It seems clear to me that any defense of Kelly’s discriminatory policies would necessarily fall outside of this limit.

By extending Kelly the invitation to deliver an endowed lecture -advertised without reference to his racist policies and designed with no opponent on the podium- Brown legitimized such speech. The protest succeeded in powerfully injecting opposing voices into an event that would otherwise have perpetuated their marginalization. Yes, interested students were deprived the opportunity to hear Kelly speak. But it would have been a far greater injustice to insist that students targeted by his policies endure his University-sanctioned defense in patient civility. Some things should not be up for debate.

Yesterday’s forum was a meaningful first step toward creating a truly inclusive Brown Community- I hope it is not the last.

Sincerely,

-Rachel Bishop, ’13

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