Reed ’21: Defending the Granoff dinners

Recently, the Providence Journal published an expose detailing dinners hosted by one of Brown’s top donors, Martin Granoff P’93. The article, titled “VIP dinners offer peek at culture of privilege at Brown University,”  described these semi-yearly, invitation-only dinners Mr. Granoff hosts for wealthy students, potential donors and personal friends. Until last week, the University provided logistical support for these dinners by emailing invitations to students. Within hours of the article’s publishing, Brown students expressed outrage toward the University’s involvement and the dinners themselves.

But criticism of the dinners quickly spiraled out of control. What could have been an opportunity to consider the issues of class and influence at Brown became a cesspool of generalizations, flimsy arguments and ad hominems. To be certain, not all Granoff critics fall into this category. But the vast majority of arguments I’ve heard have suffered from a lack of nuance that should worry all Brown students. From what I have heard on campus, there are three main criticisms: first, attacks on Mr. Granoff himself for being shallow enough to invite rich people to a dinner purely as an ego trip; second, general accusations of classism, elitism and a handful of other -isms; and third, criticism of the University, and the Office of Residential Life in particular, for allegedly providing special favors to the attendees.

The first claim is absurd and defamatory and should be rejected by thoughtful Brown students. The second point is a legitimate accusation that warrants thorough consideration, though I disagree with it. The third, as any serious person would agree, is a just criticism (though it seems this has little to do with the dinners themselves).

There are some valid claims that deserve a hearing, but the current climate does a disservice to that effort. The caricatures of the dinners are most responsible for this breakdown. There seem to be two prevalent images. One is something of an F. Scott Fitzgerald dinner party, the other the Brown University equivalent of the Bilderberg meetings: gatherings of wealthy and well-connected people, which spark allegations of classism and unfairness, and whispers of something perhaps more sinister. The former is an exercise in vanity, the latter a one-stop shop for networking and special favors.

Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but when I think of the dinners, I see something far less cinematic. I see one of Brown’s top benefactors spending a lot of money to wine-and-dine wealthy would-be donors to help raise money for the University. Some have called this exclusionary. I’d call it hunting where the ducks are. If targeting wealthy people for donations is an exercise in classism, then I suspect every nonprofit organization is guilty of the same sin.

I understand why some people’s gut reaction is to criticize events like this. On a liberal campus like Brown, a sexy story such as this harkens ideas of income inequality and class divisions. These are obviously very serious and real issues, but I’d ask those who are most upset about the dinners to take a step back and objectively ask themselves whether the most constructive way to discuss issues of classism is to attack the event and insult its organizers and attendees for perpetuating elitism.

These types of attacks have pushed the dinner attendees under a cloak of anonymity — almost all the students quoted in the Journal article withheld their names due to fear of how their fellow students would perceive them. If the goal is to genuinely solve these issues, everyone must be comfortable contributing to the discourse by being able to converse openly and honestly.

Quite frankly, outrage over these dinners has done a disservice to the causes which the critics ostensibly champion. The loudest, most unreasonable Granoff critics have pushed the conversation away from potentially productive discourse. If you dare wade into the indignancy and all-around anger of Dear Blueno commentary in recent days (I recommend you do not), you will see one contributor has even gone so far as to suggest “review-bombing” Bacaro — the Italian restaurant where the event was held. Not everyone who has attacked the dinners has displayed this degree of thoughtlessness, but there does appear to be a shared mob mentality among the staunchest Granoff critics.

It is fair to generally question the virtue of dinners such as these. And as Caroline Mulligan ’19 wrote in her column “The burden of gratitude,”  our appreciation for donors such as Mr. Granoff do not make these events immune from criticism. But it should, however, give us pause to stop and give a more considered opinion before hurling accusations of selfish motivations and self-aggrandizement.

The ProJo piece could well have become a productive starting point for a constructive conversation about elitism at Brown and the very serious allegations of the University providing special favors to wealthy and well-connected students. But the degree of disdain that students have thus far shown toward the dinners has instead molded the debate into blanket attacks.

The current discourse has become so toxic as to push reasonable people away from the conversation — so that those who remain are the loudest, most extreme voices. We should be thankful that we study on a campus where students who see injustices attack them head-on. But I fear, in this case, students have become so entrenched in the task of defeating injustice that they themselves have been unjust.

 

Andrew Reed ’21 can be reached andrew_reed@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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