Looking Back – and Forward – as Providence Universities Cope with Chaos

Drawing parallels between the challenges campuses faced in 1970 versus 2020

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When COVID-19 shut down this year’s graduation at Brown, in addition to the havoc it created for the graduating seniors, it also squelched the reunion of one of its most provocative and idealistic predecessors: the class of 1970, which had been planning to return to the campus to celebrate its fiftieth.

Let’s go back to May 4, 1970, the horrific day when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four, wounding nine. Here in Providence, after an on-campus appearance by NY Senator Jacob Javits, Brown students poured onto the Campus Green to vote on whether to initiate a university-wide strike just before finals. The result: 1,895 in favor, 884 against. A few days later, the faculty followed, voting 216 to 54 to join the students in protest. All classes were cancelled, replaced by discussion groups, draft card burnings, and impromptu rallies, demanding that our government end the war in Vietnam. As one of the few universities where both the students and faculty came together publically in opposition, Brown soon found itself at the epicenter of an exploding national crisis.

Like universities across the country, Brown is now trying to figure out how to navigate the uncharted waters created by the pandemic as it debates the merits of on-site learning, going totally virtual, or anything in between.

Early on, President Paxton, in a full-page op-ed in The New York Times, staked out Brown’s initial position as one of the country’s major universities on the importance of retaining as much academic normalcy as possible. Meanwhile, as many of its fellow institutions try that approach, unpredictable spot virus flare-ups are rendering even the most thought-out preparations moot.

Unlike our current scenario, In 1970, the faculty and students were in lockstep on how to react to the situation. And given the mandatory draft that had been implemented, clearly it was the students who were most under the gun; this time, we all have some skin in the game. What happens or doesn’t on campus will affect all of us physically, and even to an institution as big as Brown, fiscally as well.

So where are we now as we go to press? To Brown’s credit, the school offered a well-attended Zoom presentation that tried to allay neighborhood concerns at the end of August. They reported that they have enrolled 500 students who will live on campus in addition to 2,000 who will live off. The students are required to attend an online educational model as well as sign a letter of commitment to abide by Rhode Island public health guidelines. It is assumed that Brown will take steps, as Providence College already has, to discipline students for non-compliance, though this was not spelled out. What the school has initiated is a new anonymous tip hotline (877-318-9184) and website (Brown.EthicsPoint.com) to report infractions that will be directly forwarded to the school for action. Additionally, they promise a regular stream of updates and data for both their on-campus and off-campus students. Should the numbers not meet expectations, they are poised to pivot to off-site options already teed up and ready to go.

While appreciating Brown’s efforts for increased clarity, Councilperson Helen Anthony, who monitored the session, expressed some concerns. She worries that the school shouldn’t rely solely on Providence police to be responsible for off-campus student behavior. Another attendee suggested additional monitoring by Brown of the streets around the campus, as has happened to address crime upticks in the past. Anthony also hopes there will be a clearer conduit for communicating off-campus student behavior to the community.

Given the almost daily shifts in the terrain, glitches are not unexpected, but there has been some encouraging initial feedback: Dan Egan, president of the Association of the Colleges & Universities of RI, reports that fewer than 30 of the first 35,000 incoming students have tested positive. In terms of reinforcing student behavior with real action, PC has already suspended 17 students for violating their COVID-19 Code of Conduct.

No one is naive enough to expect that there won’t be positive cases this fall, but all schools also have a responsibility to ensure they do all they can to keep their neighbors safe as well – including real-time reports on any upticks in cases and keeping all students accountable, both on and off campus, for following public health protocols – as we all count down the days until a vaccine.

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