The Libertarian Brown

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Esquire magazine recently called Brown “That Maoist collective in Rhode Island.” Bill O’Reilly lambasted both the institution and the administration as “pinheads” and “liberals.” The Princeton Review ranked us as #18 on their list of “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians.” Yet as I spend more and more time at Brown, the question for me is not “Are they wrong?”, but rather “Just how wrong are they?”

There is no question that Brown’s students are overwhelmingly liberal. Unsurprising to anyone who has spent more than five minutes on campus, 86% of students supported Barack Obama in the last election, while only 6.3% supported John McCain, according to a poll conducted last autumn by The Brown Daily Herald.

But the politics of individual students hide the extent to which the institution is libertarian. I hate to break it to you, Brunonia, but as a college, we’re not Barack Obama; we’re Ron Paul.

Brown’s libertarianism is strongly manifest in two ways: first, the New Curriculum’s laissez-faire approach to class selection; and second, its lax enforcement of almost every official regulation.

Just as libertarians object to centralized power and to let too much power aggregate in the hands of administrators, the New Curriculum objects to the placement of any power, over what classes to take, into the hands of administrators and bureaucrats. With the exception of which classes constitute a major – which each department controls separately – the New Curriculum famously does not impose requirements on students and allows them to take any or all courses pass/fail.

If Brown were really a liberal institution, it would act more like liberal politicians. Liberal politicians think that the government generally knows what is best for its people and therefore mandates – to an alarming extent – what we can and cannot do (although, I’m not ready to speak well of conservative politicians, who certainly like to mandate behavior every bit as much as liberal ones). Instead of mimicking this model – like Columbia University or the University of Chicago, which both have extensive core requirements – Brown acts exactly contrary to this sort of thinking. It gives students an almost unmatched capacity for choosing classes.

If Brown were really a liberal institution, it would set up regulations to limit the freedom of the New Curriculum like Congress sets up regulations to offset certain freedoms in the Constitution (e.g., the Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth Amendments). While the federal government hands down around 75,000 pages worth of requirements every year, Brown has shockingly few that affect the freedom in the New Curriculum, and even these are largely for show and have little effect on the lives of students.

For example, freshmen must talk with a faculty advisor before choosing classes. However, they are free to change classes or grading options – which, with the advent of Banner, is now as easy as changing their Facebook statuses – without consulting their faculty advisors.

And what is the result of this freedom? Students taking four classes in English every semester? Rampant abuse throughout the University? No. What comes out of this freedom is one of the most balanced student bodies in the country. Partly because Brown attracts those who are intellectually curious and partly because, according to Brown’s website, “the New Curriculum [gives] students the right to choose, the right to fail, and above all the freedom to direct their own education,” students here tend to take a lot of different classes. If Brown were really a liberal institution, we wouldn’t leave this kind of diversity up to students to initiate; instead, it would be mandated.

Further, Brown’s libertarianism is manifest in its commitment to letting students do pretty much whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else (sound familiar?). Take, for example, Brown’s policy on alcohol. Officially, “with respect to alcohol, the University strives to prevent underage drinking”; while unofficially, the policy seems to be, “don’t do anything really stupid.”

To make sure that Brown students don’t possess “kegs, large-scale containers of alcoholic beverages, and individually-sized bottled alcohol,” which are not permitted under ResLife rules, Brown has mandatory room searches.

By now, I think everyone has experienced the sheer terror of these searches. ResLife emails students a week before their rooms may be searched to notify them (i.e., to tell them to hide any items banned by University policy). And even when they search the rooms, they are not allowed to open desks and drawers, or to look at anything that’s not in plain sight. (Even so, one of my friends had a TV bolted to her wall, prohibited under University policy, and the ResLife inspector, instead of citing it as a violation, complimented it). I want to make clear that I have no objections to this policy, but it certainly does not help the University to prevent underage drinking. Instead, it advances the University’s unofficial policy of personal responsibility.

If Brown really were a liberal institution, it would not allow students this much freedom, especially the freedom to abuse the implicit policy. Instead, it could have instituted a system of cap-and-trade for drinking wherein Alpha Epsilon Pi would have to buy credits from Interfaith House and the sub-free floor of Perkins before holding “Body Chemistry.”

But rather than implementing this vision of liberal intervention, we see that Brown lets students act pretty much however they want, despite the rules.

What is the result of this freedom? Record numbers of alcoholic students? EMS being overwhelmed? Again, no. While alcoholism is surely a problem on campus (as it is everywhere), and while EMS does need to be used almost every weekend, the vast majority of Brown students choose to drink responsibly.

How is this possible without a strong central body setting and defining the culture on campus? Due largely to Brown’s lax enforcement of any sort of alcohol policy and campaign to educate rather than enforce, alcohol is largely demystified and no longer the object of wonder on campus. This increased knowledge largely curbs the rate of binge drinking. The product of this education and lax enforcement is more personal freedom and responsibility.

In sum, the institution of Brown University acts in contradiction to its students’ liberal leanings. Instead of fostering an environment where campus officials act like the government and take a lot of power, Brown students reject this in favor of a more libertarian structure wherein students are loaded with freedom and responsibility. The University doesn’t act like a liberal government because it does not promise to act as a safety-net for students who abuse either the New Curriculum or the alcohol policy.

It’s surprising, then, that Ron Paul didn’t garner more support on campus. Perhaps by 2012 Brown students will be ready to give the country the same degree of freedom they receive at Brown.

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