Topic: Professionals & Institutions
Conflicted at Brown
The problem isn’t the inquiry. Brown University’s president has formed a panel to study the school’s ties to slavery, and make a recommendation about whether the school owes reparations to the descendants of slaves. One of Brown’s founders was a slave trader.
The problem is who’s making it. Brown’s president, Ruth J. Simmons, is a great-great-granddaughter of slaves, and thus a potential beneficiary of the very process she has begun. It is not sufficient to say that she has taken the issue out of her conflicted hands by putting it into the hands of a committee: the committee is her creation, and carries her conflict with it.
One reason conflicts of interest run amuck in our state and national government, in the media, on our corporate boards and in the courts is that we tend to only object to them if and when we don’t like the end result. By then it’s too late. The proper way for Ms. Simmons, by all accounts a superb university president, to deal with this issue was to raise it with her board, and remove herself from any involvement. By not doing so, it is questionable whether the inquiry into slavery is to serve her interests or those of the institution. She clearly cannot separate them: witness her statement to the New York Times:
“What I’m trying to do, you see, in a country that wants to move on, I’m trying to understand as a descendant of slaves how to feel about moving one.”
It is not up to Simmons to use the prestige and resources of the university she is charged with serving to help her understand “how to feel.” It is, in fact, inappropriate. Her conflict of interest could not be more clear cut, and she ought to recuse herself from any further involvement in it. As for newspapers like the Boston Globe that have cheered her actions without reservation, it is time for their readers to ask why these supposed public watchdogs can’t detect a blatant conflict of interest when it’s right in front of them.