When Dolores Umbridge Comes To Town: On Paxson’s Letter to the Brown Community

Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter 5: Order of the Phoenix

As I predicted a few weeks ago, the recent campus protests against Ray Kelly and his Stop & Frisk policies have elicited a strong reaction from both the University and President Paxson. In order to aid those students likely to be reprimanded for their noble (if foolishly implemented) protest, I wanted to take a moment to outline what President Paxson was attempting to do with her e-mail, and what her likely plans are regarding the committee she seeks to establish. In another post, I’ll  suggest some ways for the protestors to minimize the potential fallout and achieve some concrete aims.

The e-mail President Paxson sent does two things: it reframes the incident as an attack by protestors on their classmates’ right to hear a free exchange of ideas, and it then lays out her proposed plan for defending those students’ from future “attacks” on freedom of speech:

Not only was Commissioner Kelly denied the opportunity to speak, but members of our community were denied the opportunity to challenge him. This is a violation of the University’s Code of Student Conduct, which in its guidelines states:

“Protest is a necessary and acceptable means of expression within the Brown community. However, protest becomes unacceptable when it obstructs the basic exchange of ideas. Such obstruction is a form of censorship, no matter who initiates it or for what reasons.”

If we are to prevent similar episodes in the future, these standards of conduct must be upheld and enforced. We also need to understand the University’s responsibility for the events of last week. Brown hosts controversial speakers on a regular basis. Clearly, something went awry in the planning and oversight of this particular lecture. There is a need to establish the simple facts of what happened and why.

President Paxson is doing some impressive rhetorical gymnastics here.

In the immediate aftermath of the protests, Paxson engaged in community discussions on campus, where she heard students’ express their outrage over Ray Kelly and his obviously racist policies. Paxson knows she cannot win students’ support so long as the aftermath is a discussion about Kelly’s policies and/or whether the University implicitly endorsed them by inviting him to speak on campus without providing a countervailing point-of-view. Instead of addressing this perception, Paxson attempts to reorient the discussion away from the issue of Stop & Frisk and onto more favorable terrain — namely, the university’s rules and regulations. By invoking the Code of Conduct, Paxson is attempting to reframe the protests as students (protestors) stifling the free speech of other students — a move that not only lessens the University’s complicity in the incident, but also pits students against one another, making it easier for her administration to avoid battling a unified student body working in opposition to her.

By forcing the students into an adversarial relationship with one another, President Paxson is hoping to avoid any blowback for her second objective — punishing the protestors:

…I indicated that given the extraordinary nature of these events, I plan to appoint a faculty/student committee to review the episode and make findings and recommendations to me in two phases. In the first phase, the committee will conduct a review of the activities and circumstances related to the October 29 lecture and identify problems with the planning and implementation that may have contributed to the disruption.

In similar instances that have occurred at Brown in the past, students who have violated the Code of Student Conduct have been asked to take responsibility for their actions. After the findings from the first phase of the Committee’s work are complete, we will determine whether individuals or organizations involved should be referred to the University’s established processes for resolving alleged violations of the Code of Student Conduct.

In the second phase, the Committee will address the broader issues of campus climate, free expression, and dialogue across difference that have been the context for much of the discussion and activity of the last week. Specifically, the Committee will make recommendations regarding how the University community can maintain an inclusive environment while upholding our deep commitment to the free exchange of ideas.

President Paxson’s proposed process is two-tiered. First, an investigative panel made up of students and faculty will look at the event and come up with recommendations for preventing this sort of protest from occurring again (namely, by identifying students and groups responsible and thenfunneling them towards the University’s judicial bodies). Since Brown students weren’t the only ones disrupting the speech, and members of the community are obviously outside the University’s jurisdiction, the committee will almost inevitably look at increasing the police presence at future events, instituting ticket-only policies, or limiting participation by the wider Providence community. Only after the committee has identified the primary perpetrators (a.k.a., collected a pound of flesh) and steeled itself against future incidents, will the committee then turn towards addressing the protestors’ issues with free speech and debate on campus.

Again, this is a wonderfully strategic move.

By splitting the committee into two distinct phases, President Paxson is separating the protestors from the issue they were protesting (Kelly) while implicitly making any resolution to their concerns contingent on the committee exacting confessions and/or punishments for the incident. Considering the newness of her tenure, Paxson knows she can’t unilaterally punish the protestors without potentially triggering a backlash from students; nor can she recommend closing events to the larger Providence community without being accused of being an outsider meddling with Brown’s essential ethos (community engagement). While her favorability is still positive, her negatives have jumped 300% since the incident. However, she needs to take some sort of disciplinary action in order to re-establish her authority ( to the student body, the faculty, and the wider public) and save face after being embarrassed during the protests — protests that drew attention away from her recently unveiled “Strategic Plan” for the University.

Her proposed committee process side steps those pitfalls by spreading the blame for any potential punitive measures amongst a committee of students, faculty — reinforcing her own student vs. student narrative and providing herself some feigned distance from the process. Since she has the sole power to appoint committee members, it’s unlikely that she’ll appoint a majority of members to the committee not already pre-disposed towards her view, ensuring plausible deniability for their recommendations while simultaneously stacking the deck against the protestors. Her plan is to have the faculty and students met out punishments, blame for the incident without incurring any real blowback herself.

More impressively, Paxson has also given herself a great deal of leeway when it comes to the committee’s eventual suggestions. Not only does she get to appoint the members herself, but her e-mail doesn’t guarantee that she’ll take the committee’s recommendations wholesale — providing her room to maneuver in the future if the committee’s punishments are considered by the Brown community to be too harsh, if the committee’s suggestions are too restrictive, or if they are met with outright hostility by the students. In that case, Paxson has enough feigned distance from both the process and the committee to then intervene and adjust those recommendations. In which case she’d walk away from the fiasco having placated those individuals requesting students be punished, while also potentially receiving protestors’ gratitude for shielding them from official sanction.

Without any counter-moves by students or faculty, President Paxson could walk away from the Kelly incident with a tighter control over University events, a fractured, scared student body unable or unwilling to protest as actively, and without having to seriously engage in the protestors concerns about Kelly — all of which she could do without putting herself in a position where she’d alienate the students or trigger a larger backlash against her administration.

Unfortunately for President Paxson, in a fit of either hubris or ignorance, she  telegraphed this plan in her e-mail — losing the element of surprise and providing time for protestors and students to organize an effective strategy to derail these plans.

In the next post, I’ll outline some suggestions as to how to do this.


He can be tweeted at @SAlexanderPhD and Tumbles here.

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