branded on distinction
Selfies of friends wearing kitsch sweaters, disturbingly marked with the Brown logo, took my Facebook News Feed this winter. Elite private universities turning profit off their likeness is nothing new. But at Brown, it’s taken to the next level.
Students are carpet-bombed by expensive advertising campaigns designed to market our school as the epitome of cool—that is, tolerant, self-aware, and willing to take a progressive stance on controversial issues. Unfortunately, other than a few voices of dissent, that’s just on the surface.
Ugly Christmas sweaters are the tip of the ad iceberg. Commemorating the 250 anniversary of Brown’s founding, the year-long Imagine Brown celebrations produced an impressive array of branded gear, from t-shirts and hoodies to ballpoint pens, notebooks, and “The Brown Reader,” a collection of essays written by well-known and established alumni.
You could create an outfit or fill a bookshelf entirely with Imagine Brown merchandise. You’d even be reminded of Brown on the way to the airport. At the height of Imagine Brown, they posted their white-and-red emblem on a billboard straddling I-95—right next to the aptly named Warwick strip club “Cheaters.”
In crafting the bold and beautiful spectacle of Brown, Imagine Brown employs a vast array of potent visual symbols. Selling the Brown brand—accumulating capital on cultural distinction—also performs a less apparent ideological function. When you buy Imagine Brown merchandise, they are not simply “things,” free-floating signifiers devoid of meaning.
They work like communion wafers. Instead of receiving the body of Christ, Imagine Brown cultivates a different sort of sacrament. You are meant to feel immensely special, absolutely unique and, therefore, supremely entitled—and, above all, that you have a stake in giving back, money-wise, to an institution that makes you who you are.
Half-Baking the Past
In March 2014, Imagine Brown kicked off with a 600-pound cake made to resemble University Hall—the administrative nerve center of campus. A bakery in Boston spent one month planning, and one week building, the cake. Remarkably, University Hall was reproduced in minute detail: white icing windows, red velvet bricks, creamy vanilla drapery. Towering on a makeshift concert stage, hundreds gathered to consume a slice of Brown’s elaborate sucrose tribute to itself.
Anthropologist Sydney Mintz’s seminal text “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History” focuses on how sugar—its production, consumption and relationship to power—colors our understanding of the past-present continuum. Knights, nobles, kings and aristocrats in early modern Europe (around the 17 century) spent immense sums on constructing “subtleties,” or saccharine replicas of famous castles and palaces.
From gaudy confections, these “subtleties” evolved into “message-bearing objects that can be used to make a special point.” Esteemed guests, most often, bit into a physical embodiment of the host’s wealth, status and authority. So, what does it mean to eat University Hall?
Used for more than ostentatious display, sugar or, more accurately, molasses played an integral role in generating the wealth of colonial America. Illegal under British mercantile law, sugar imports from the French West Indies—harvested on slave-labor plantations—were shipped to New England for distillation into rum.
Rhode Island, in particular, profited from thirty rum distilleries. Compared to gin, it was often said that rum, as a relatively widespread commodity, “may be made highly useful, both for relief and regalement of human nature.”?
If not for the uplift of mankind, the fiscal boost to be had from rum production pushed Anglo-Americans, like John Brown, toward slaving and smuggling. The system, though run on complex trade routes, followed a simple feedback loop: “more sugar, more rum, and more slaves.”?
Sugar (and its byproducts), in no small part, heralded the death knell of mercantilism, and spurred the expansion of capitalist development within an incipient nation (the United States) founded on ill-gotten gains.
When the Class Board organized an Imagine Brown cocktail soiree in September, they sought to inculcate the undergraduate cohort with a sense of school spirit to reaffirm the idea of a tangible “Brown Community.” The Class Board, perhaps as a bizarre homage to Prince, advertised the event with the byline, “Party like it’s 1764”—the year of Brown’s incorporation.
Attendees were treated to a live cover band, blasting solid ’90s hits, and a table of free crimson glowsticks. Here, on Pembroke Field, nation met alma mater: the crowd, mid-way through Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” broke out in a chauvinistic chant, “USA! USA! USA!”
As “imagined communities,” to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term, the way universities establish campus bonds is analogous to how nations foster affective attachment among citizens. This explains why the Imagine Brown cocktail party, having little to do (overtly) with the state, bled so easily into a pageant of patriotism.
Edmund Burke, the 18th-century reactionary, understood the need for governments to present politics as theater, to soften naked oppression (for private universities, rising tuition maybe or union-busting library staff) in a coat of “decent drapery.” Writing against the French Revolution for its adherence to a cult of rationality, Burke quips, “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” At the heart of Imagine Brown, as with any form of agitprop, rests a deliberate attempt to wed an individual’s sense of themselves to a wider social project through aesthetic production.
Slouching Toward Equality
Justin Simien’s film “Dear White People” explores the layers of institutional “whiteness” that permeate elite universities in America. Simien highlights everyday racism, (micro-) aggressions, faced by students of color in a higher-education system that prides itself as the pinnacle of multiculturalism. Like Winchester University in “Dear White People,” Brown engages in the peculiar parody of citing dubious statistics to claim high rates of racial and socioeconomic diversity while remaining, predominantly, white and rich. Has something gone horribly awry in the ivory tower?
If materialism isn’t your thing, an equally staggering number of “enduring contributions” lined the Imagine Brown itinerary. Nods to institutional diversity—such as a teach-in on white privilege and the unveiling of a slavery memorial—do for Brown what multicultural spreads do for the clothing industry.
In other words, these are signs to evoke the image of an enlightened corporation on the fast track to racial inclusion. The ad-version of Brown inches steadily toward a more egalitarian future. Undermining John Lennon’s Marx-inspired single, Brown’s anniversary webpage uses the slogan “yet another new day, full of the brightest promise.”
Yet, Imagine Brown (and the initiatives it sponsors) merely acknowledges a troubled past for the sake of brand consistency. Put simply, the marketing of Brown—most pronounced in the anniversary scheme—capitalizes on a tradition of student activism and simultaneously conceals the university’s conservative position on a wide range of concerns in the present. The administration’s upper echelons portray Brown as an ethical institution without taking the steps to actually build one.
Craig Wilder’s “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” argues that present-tense inequities in academia reflect the disturbing historical roots of prestigious schooling (rather than the unintentional result of policy failure). Our institution continues to be an exclusionary haunt of the ruling class because that is the crowd it was built to educate.
Just as Ferguson protesters quote W.E.B. Dubois to critique racialized policing— “a system cannot fail those it was never built to protect”—the same can be said of the Ivy League. Old habits die hard, especially in a climate of “racism without racists.” A few students of color, of lower economic background, walk through the Van Wickle Gates every year. They are, however, exceptions to the rule. The blind spots of elite education, according to Wilder, cannot be understood without considering the transatlantic slave trade and what followed in its wake.
Without slavery, there may have been no Brown University. John Brown, an original trustee of the College of Rhode Island (later Brown), was a prominent merchant, politician and slave trader. Brown personally managed numerous slave voyages out of Newport, the epicenter of New England’s chattel economy, around its peak in 1772. When Britain attempted to reign in colonialist piracy, Brown led a group of approximately 500 rioters to burn an armed schooner, the Gaspee, near Narragansett Bay. At dawn, in a hail of gunfire, Brown shot down the ship’s captain.
Brown, however, was not the last slaver to helm the university. Our first chancellor, Stephen Hopkins, maintained a small retinue of slaves. Hopkins, as a Quaker, was excommunicated from his religious community for refusing to release them. One must speculate if Hopkins, while later signing the Declaration of Independence, did so not for the emancipation of all, but to preserve the lucrative dividends (and status) derived from the flesh trade.
Notably, John’s brother Moses attempted to sever the university’s ties to slavery. A noted abolitionist and co-founder of the university, Moses Brown was compelled by investors to tone down his gestures toward emancipation at the behest of bare profit logic. When Brown wanted to offer a cash prize for the best example of antislavery rhetoric in Rhode Island, he met stiff opposition by the university because the contest was not “agreeable to the slave traders on the board.” He later dropped the proposal.
Times have changed drastically since the Brown family controlled the university. Chattel slavery is long gone, but the weight carried by shareholder’s material interest remains substantial—as President Paxson’s refusal in 2013 to divest from coal companies reminds us. There are more nuances today, though the underlying trend endures. Behind Paxson’s rhetorical flourishes, beholden to the interests of the Corporation (an ominous governing body of investment barons), a routine hypocrisy runs deep, an ungainly precedent to side with monied donors when their portfolios clash against an obvious ethical imperative.
Inspired by Brown’s “Slavery & Justice Report,” Wilder’s depiction of the colonial university in “Ebony & Ivy” sounds surprisingly modern. American universities, with lecture halls built on slave labor, were (like today) playgrounds for the patrician sons of high society. In the eighteenth century, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown and Emory University, among other eminent academies, frequently vied “for the fees of young men from slave-owning families, and sent emissaries in search of gifts and students.” Some alumni became trustees on governing boards, further solidifying administrative links to the slave trade. Others joined the ranks of accountants, plantation managers, and professors who provided the bureaucratic and intellectual apparatus to perpetuate slavery.
While flaunted as a mark of benevolent remembrance, the new slavery memorial on the Quiet Green serves the marketing goals of Imagine Brown. Artist Martin Puryear designed the eight-foot-wide ball-and-chain sculpture, with the last steel link broken above, to transform “a recognizable symbol of enslavement into a statement of recognition and hope.” The memorial, of course, encourages self-reflection about one’s privilege and debts that accrue by studying at a school whose brick and mortar are soaked in the blood of African slaves.
At the same time, Brown gains a lawn ornament—another highlight on campus tours, another piece of decor to showcase its enlightenment. Given Brown’s lack of diversity, in terms of race and class, and abject treatment of labor on campus, the future, I’m afraid, does not come across as all that hopeful.
All of this begs the question: where is the space to imagine the institution as we see it? To have an impact on the investment portfolio, or even a say in how we’re advertised? Instead, a motley crew of hedge fund managers and public relations gurus makes these decisions for us. But should they?