The Art of the Possible: Ira Magaziner ’69

By Samuel Rubinstein

As any applicant to Brown can tell you, the New Curriculum has become the heart and soul of the University since the program’s inception in 1969. Its chief architect, however, may be even more remarkable. Ira Magaziner ’69 has arguably had a greater impact upon the culture, philosophy and pedagogy of Brown University than any other student. In 1967, while president of student government, he became frustrated with the perceived lack of creative thinking and dynamism in American higher education. In response, he formed a Group Independent Study Project with Elliot Maxwell ’68 and several other students to explore the issue. That summer, Magaziner and Maxwell wrote a 400-page document — dubbed the Magaziner-Maxwell Report — which outlined their proposal for rectifying the problems in the academic system of the time.

The University was initially unreceptive. However, after a far-reaching lobbying effort starting with outreach to peers and then personal promotional visits to every Brown professor, the idea gained traction, and the University formed a special committee to consider the proposition. The Magaziner-Maxwell Report originally called for the abolition of all grades in favor of a dossier system in which a student transcript would consist of written evaluations. The students proposed “Modes of Thought” (MT) courses for first-years to replace large, poorly taught lectures. The report also strongly favored alternative projects to final exams. Ultimately, the Committee proposed a modified system largely similar to the one we use today. In a marathon two-day meeting of faculty in May 1968, the New Curriculum was approved.

But the Curriculum still had challenges to overcome. Sufficient funds were never allocated to support many of the changes — particularly the development of the MT courses, which quickly floundered. By 1974, the New York Times reported that students no longer desired experimental courses or grading and that the proportion of registrations designated Satisfactory/No Credit had plummeted from 63 percent in 1970 to 36 percent. To stem the discontent, the Corporation publicly reaffirmed its support for the New Curriculum and ordered President Hornig to raise funds for it. Over time, first-year seminars replaced the MT courses, and support from students and the administration solidified.

Magaziner’s effervescent activism did not cease after Commencement. In the 1990s, he led the Task Force to Reform Healthcare with Hillary Clinton. Today, Magaziner is the CEO and vice chairman of the Clinton Health Access Initiative. These programs exemplify his unending fervor for change. If politics is truly the art of the possible, then Magaziner is the person who brought that art to student politics.

How did you organize the desires of many students for educational innovation around one, coherent proposal?

It mainly involved a lot of talking, and a lot of discussion. I put together, between my sophomore and junior year, a draft report. — it was discussed among 20 students that Eliot Maxwell was leading. Then, once we had consensus from that advisory board, we undertook a major effort to go out to every dormitory and fraternity and engage students. At first, when we would go to a dorm, there might be two or three students that came to a meeting – but after three or four visits to each dorm, we usually engaged a pretty good number of students. It was a lot of discussion, and that led to general consensus.

Did you believe that your efforts would be successful? If so, why were they?

Whenever you start a major movement to bring change, you can never be fully confident that it will be successful, but if you believe in what you are doing you move forward. In this case there were a number of student movements at different universities that were setting up “free universities” to meet off campus, but were not part of the official university curriculum. We felt that the best way to work was to try to change the mainstream institution, rather than to set up something that was small and apart, because if we wanted to make sustainable change, we needed to change the institution itself.

The reason why we were successful is twofold. One is that we took a very thorough, reasoned approach by writing a long document, and then trying to engage the faculty and administration in a debate about that work, so that it wasn’t just students occupying a building or students yelling. Secondly, most importantly, we mobilized a lot of students. There were other universities where there were blowups going on, and small number of radical students would occupy a building or stage a protest, while most students looked on. In our case, we mobilized thousands of students, and eventually had a majority of the student body [behind us]. That strength in numbers meant that we could use moderate tactics and still have a large impact.

Does organizing on campus relate to organizing around policy in the White House, or in a professional environment?

I think so. The work I’ve done since I left Brown has often involved activism and trying to bring positive change. What I learned at Brown is that being thorough and well-organized, having strength in large numbers and doing careful planning are all very important.

Did you imagine that the New Curriculum would become the centerpiece of this community?

I think what we were aiming at was a different view of how to educate future leaders. What we saw at other elite institutions was a very passive kind of learning that rewarded being able to regurgitate what was told to you. There was not sufficient creative or even rebellious thinking, and not enough students taking responsibility for their own education. We used to say that at a number of our peer institutions, leadership was defined mainly as an elite group of kids: It was not diverse as it should have been or now is. It was kind of as if the flat earth society was the big institution in town. [The attitude was that], “My daddy and granddaddy were the leaders of it, and if I did well at Brown, I could lead it too.” The kind of leaders we wanted were those that could go in and say, “We think the earth is round.” After everyone laughed, they would keep at it until they could prove that they were right. We were trying to train leaders who, by definition, challenge authority, because that is how society progresses, not by maintenance of the status quo.

The other idea that influenced us was the belief that knowledge was exploding. The idea that there was some core [curriculum] that could teach you everything you needed to know didn’t work anymore. What was important was for students to learn how to think in different disciplines, because that way they could fuel lifelong learning. I know that out in the world, in the White House and elsewhere, you can often tell [who are the] Brown graduates — they are often more creative and rebellious in a positive way. I think it is a good legacy. I am struck by the fact that when surveys are done of alums, Brown has the most students who feel that their education was really beneficial — 20 or 30 points higher than its peers.

You directed students to physically turn their backs to Henry Kissinger when he received an honorary degree here. In light of recent events, can you delineate when it is appropriate to intervene in a public event, and is there a “right” way to go about it?

The issue with the Vietnam War was very serious to my generation. Friends of ours from high school who didn’t go to college were dying, and at that time when you were 18 or 19 you couldn’t vote, but you would go over and die. A group of student leaders had met with Kissinger when he first took office and he assured us that he was within a year he was going to get this thing [done]. This was now a couple of years later and nothing had been done. We did protest against [Kissinger] receiving an honorary degree, which we felt was inappropriate. [On] the question of the [recent] protest, I firmly believe that a university campus needs to support free speech. I think that shouting someone down and not letting them speak is not appropriate on a university campus. I think universities should be a place where people can express their opinions. Quietly turning your backs on someone is different, because that does not disrupt other people’s ability to hear what someone has to say, but it does express your displeasure. We [utilized] a more passive resistance that did not disrupt free speech. That is where I personally draw the line.

Some students have alleged that Brown does not listen to their voices. Do you have any advice?

Organize. If you have large numbers of students behind you, your voice will be heard. If you are just a small group, you can be ignored. It is all about organizing. I do not believe it is a matter of different times or conditions. It is the hard work of discussion, persuasion, building an organization — that happened with education reform and also happened with need blind admission. I think the administration you have now will listen, but they want to know, is this just you and a couple of your friends, or is this a broad-based student opinion? It’s not [1969], but if I look at the conditions in 1969 that fueled a lot of student protests, there are other [equally motivating] issues today. I think if I were at a university now, the fact that the US government has not moved on climate change, and society has not reacted — I would certainly try to get involved.

Do we need students on the Corporation?

I think it is a good idea, personally. Having a couple of student representatives on the Corporation would help students better understand issues of the University, and would help the Corporation relate to students. I know that steps were taken to have recent alumni on, which I think is a good thing, but I think it would be a good thing to have student representatives on [it]. They would not be a majority, just a couple, but I think that would be a good thing.

In your Commencement speech, you called for a “cultural revolution” to heal the apathy and immorality. In what ways was your vision realized, and in what ways was it not?

When I was in high school I was involved with the civil rights movement. I went to Mississippi, got arrested there, and I also got arrested in New York, where there were no fair housing laws. A place like Brown had very few minority students. We thought it appropriate to increase the numbers and outreach. The way we arrange the educational financing system in this country is local. If the tax base is poor, the school will be poor, [and poverty is perpetuated]. We see around the world, in the work that we do [at the Clinton Health Access Initiative], that intelligence and work ethic are equally distributed, but what is lacking is education and opportunity. That’s why we [as students] were so politically active, and I’m glad to see that it was successful, in the sense that minority enrollments have gone up at elite schools.

We are a country divided right now in attitudes. There is a large group of people for whom the kinds of values we would call for are evident, and then there is a counter to that, an almost anti-intellectualism, which I think is hurting the country. What worries me most, overall, is that we fought against inequality of opportunity and made some progress, but now we’ve headed back in the past decade. In the Clinton administration we did succeed in havening significant economic growth — creating 20 million jobs, seeing incomes go up across the spectrum — but over the last decade that [progress] has rolled back and a disproportionate amount of wealth has gone to the wealthiest. Thirty percent of our children are born into poverty and don’t have opportunity for advancement. We have to overcome that if we are going to be successful as a nation. Unfortunately my generation was not successful in that. [Your generation] needs to define a specific set of program and policy goals to be implemented, and then organize like crazy. Right now I work all around the world, and there is a lot more dynamism and forward thinking in countries like China and India, and even in a number of African countries. Here, I think, we are losing some of that because there is too much selfishness, more of an extreme individualism and a lack of awareness that we have to be successful as a community. Your generation will hopefully push back and represent a more broad view of American society, not just a wealthy few.

Can you describe the circumstances of the 1968 black student walkout?

There were a very small number of African American students at Brown at the time. I was the head of student government and met with them frequently. They were frustrated because the University was not acknowledging in its curriculum the importance of the African American tradition, slavery and the Civil Rights movement. The deck was stacked against them in admissions. And there were various other frustrations. They made a decision to stage the walkout, to express a strong view, in a way that was consistent with the passive resistance that we believed in at Brown. There were some people from some militant groups who came to Brown and tried to ferment a more violent response but the students decided they did not want to go that route, which I think was smart. I got a call the night [of the walkout] from the president of the University and the head of the Student Life Committee of the Corporation to talk about it. I made it clear to them that the student body at large supported the walkout and made it clear that if they did not take it seriously they would find 3000 students walking out, not just a handful. We used the network we set up for education reform, which extended to every dormitory, and got 3000 signatures [on a petition of support for the walkout] within a day. I suggested that [the University] negotiate and try to resolve it because the [students’] complaints were legitimate. To their credit, the administration at the time did understand that there were real issues, underwent negotiations, committed to reach out into communities where black students lived and set up a transition group so that if the education levels were not up to where they needed to be because of poor schools, the transition group would help [students] be successful at Brown. In addition, the Third World Center and other programs were put in place. I credit the administration for not being obstructionist.

Any other parting thoughts?

In periods of history, where great positive change has taken place, students have played an active role. That was certainly true during my youth, and I think it would be good for students to take the issues they really care about and become more active in promoting those issues. It still concerns me that students and young people generally vote in low numbers, and student activism today is a bit dormant compared to what I think it should be, given the issues that are confronting the country and world right now. Pursue your beliefs and values, organize, be idealistic and practical at the same time and go for it — make positive change. You’re at a time of your life when you can do it.

About the Author

Official news from behind-the-scenes at the Brown Political Review.

SUGGESTED ARTICLES