A young woman was accepted at Brown—and then the other note arrived.
Students protest on the Brown University campus in November following the election of Donald Trump as president.PHOTO: JENNIFER MCDERMOTT/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Brown University in Providence, R.I. houses one of the country’s most selective undergraduate colleges. The Brown Daily Herald, a student-run newspaper, cites Dean of Admission Logan Powell in reporting that the school received a record-high 32,724 applications this year, and admitted just 8.3% of applicants.
Among those lucky few is the daughter of a Journal reader who is still trying to make sense of a letter the family received this week from Mr. Powell. Our reader’s bright daughter had already received news of her acceptance when a letter arrived that was addressed to her “Parent/Guardian.”
Oddly, the note referred to the accepted student not as “she” but as “they.” Dean Powell’s letter also stated that our reader’s daughter had no doubt worked hard and made positive contributions to “their” school and community. Our reader reports that his perplexed family initially thought that Brown had made a word-processing error. That was before they listened to a voice mail message from the school congratulating his daughter and referring to her as “them.”
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We’ve read about the literacy crisis in the U.S. but would not have guessed that the problem extends to Ivy League administrators. An item on Brown’s website announcing Mr. Powell’s 2016 hiring reported that he had previously served at Bowdoin, Harvard and Princeton—and also noted that he would be overseeing a staff of 38 people at Brown. One would think that at least some of them are familiar with pronouns.
It turns out that the errors were intentional. Brown spokesman Brian Clark writes in an email that “our admission office typically refers to applicants either by first name or by using ‘they/their’ pronouns. While the grammatical construction may read as unfamiliar to some, it has been adopted by many newsrooms and other organizations as a gender-inclusive option.” Our reader figured as much. “Mind you, our daughter has always been clear what her biological gender and identity is -- she’s a woman,” he reports. He believes the school “wants to make it clear that only left wing extremists are welcome at Brown. Fine with us -- good riddance.”
The letter from Dean Powell included a total of four short paragraphs, including this one: “And now, as we invite you to join the Brown family, we encourage you to allow [daughter’s name] to chart their own course. Just as you have always been there, now we will provide support, challenge and opportunities for growth.”
Nearly a complete stranger, Mr. Powell is writing a short, error-filled letter to parents claiming that his organization is fit to replace them. No doubt the “Brown family” with all its “thems” and “theys” can offer a wealth of valuable educational opportunities. But anyone who buys the line that competent parenting is part of the package has probably never set foot on campus.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."