Why are Brown students leading the opposition to their university’s tax deal with Providence?

Student involvement in city politics reflects growing activism on College Hill

By: - Friday September 29, 2023 6:01 pm

Why are Brown students leading the opposition to their university’s tax deal with Providence?

Student involvement in city politics reflects growing activism on College Hill

By: - 6:01 pm

Brown University students organized a rally on campus in April to protest the university’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal with the city of Providence. (Courtesy Meg Henning)

Brown University students organized a rally on campus in April to protest the university’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal with the city of Providence. (Courtesy Meg Henning)

Niyanta Nepal arrived at Brown University eager to join what she believed was a “liberal, socially-conscious institution.”

That excitement quickly waned.

One turning point weeks into her freshman year came during a meeting of the Students for Educational Equity (SEE), in which a fellow student and club leader shared a shocking fact: Brown does not pay the full property taxes it would owe based on the city’s commercial tax rate. 

“Guilty was my first feeling,” recalled Nepal, 20 and now a junior and SEE co-president.   “To learn I was going to an institution that was causing harm to the community… I was just in shock, thinking ‘wow, Brown doesn’t care.’”

At this point, her shock has subsided. The guilt, and the indignation, have not.

Indeed, Nepal’s passion was palpable as she strode up to the podium in Providence City Council’s chambers during a Sept. 29 public hearing about a proposed payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT)  agreement with Brown and three other higher education institutions within the city.

“We live here, we take up space here and we force a greater burden on taxpayers by not taking the financial burden that would be negligible for Brown but is harmful for everyone else in this community,” she said. “My university claims to be grappling with its history and the trans-Atlantic slave trade but refuses to agree to a suitable PILOT payment that would help the city create better communities for its residents. The communities they are harming now are the ancestors of those impacted by the harm they claim to be reckoning with.”

Her three-minute speech was met with resounding applause and cheers from the dozens of Brown University students packed into the room, many of whom also laid out educated and emotional objections to the proposed payments during the three-hour hearing.

Brown University students packed Providence City Hall on Sept. 26 to speak against proposed tax agreements between the city and four higher education institutions, including Brown. (Courtesy Meg Henning)

Proponents have touted the new voluntary agreements, which include a 20-year deal with four colleges and a separate, 10-year memorandum solely with Brown University, as a major improvement over the prior deals. Indeed, the $223 million that Brown, Providence College, Rhode Island School of Design and Johnson & Wales University would pay in lieu of taxes over the next 20 years marks a 138% increase over what they  paid during the existing, 20-year deal, and, according to the city, is “one of the most generous agreements in the country.” 

But objectors, including many Brown University students, insist it’s still not enough, comparing the proposed contribution from Brown – averaging $8.7 million a year – to the $49.3 million annual tax bill it would face if charged at a normal city tax rate, based on a prior city assessment. A bill which they say the university could certainly afford given its $6.5 billion endowment.

Specific clauses within the pair of proposals were pulled out as troubling, including one that prevents the Providence City Council from advocating for any legislative changes that increase the financial contributions from these colleges and universities over the next 20 years. 

As several Brown students pointed out, that’s longer than they’ve been alive.

It’s in spite of – or perhaps because of their age – that the university students see the PILOT proposal as a critical opportunity to make their voices, and those of the community they live side-by-side with, heard.

“We are in an extremely privileged position where we can make demands of Brown University without necessarily feeling the repercussions,” said Isabella Garo, 21, a senior student and community lead of Sunrise Brown, an environmental justice-focused student group.

Walking the line

It’s a delicate balance between using their power to speak on behalf of a community they know has been wronged, without usurping that power from the people who most deserve it — the taxpayers, public school students and displaced residents who can no longer afford to live in the increasingly gentrified neighborhoods being gobbled up for university use. Groups like Sunrise and SEE have made it their mission to talk to and solicit feedback from community members, using that to guide their own actions.

Universities agree to pay Providence more for hosting them. Not enough, critics say.

“We don’t know everything and we don’t want to be another group of college kids that think they do know everything,” Nepal said. “But we do have a lot of power, and not to wield that power in a moment like this would be a shame.”

There’s also internal conflict between appreciation for the place educating them and disgust with some of that institution’s actions.

Michael Ziegler, political director for Brown’s Graduate Labor Organization (GLO) and a doctoral student studying ancient Greek literature, loves his students, the classroom experience, and what he’s helped achieve for Brown’s graduate workers, who are in negotiations with the university on a new contract. But when it comes to identifying as a proud Brown University student, he hesitated.

“I am not unproud to be at Brown, but it’s not the first thing I take pride in,” Ziegler said.

Especially because he has his own experiences and examples of ways the university has, in his words, “pulled some underhanded things,” during contract negotiations with the 1,000-member graduate student organization. 

Sherena Razek, president of GLO, expressed similar distrust at the city public hearing.

“Brown is an institution whose word cannot be trusted,” she warned. 

Which is why she and others cautioned that the voluntary nature of the agreements – with no legal recourse if Brown or other institutions decided not to pay what they said they would – was a problem.

We don't know everything and we don't want to be another group of college kids that think they do know everything. But we do have a lot of power, and not to wield that power in a moment like this would be a shame. )

– Niyanta Nepal, co-president of Brown’s Students for Educational Equity (SEE)

Some among the 15-member Providence City Council shared these concerns, advocating for changes to the proposed agreements to strengthen the terms. The council will consider, and hash out potential amendments to, the pair of agreements at its meeting on Oct. 5, after the council’s Committee on Finance, voted 2-1 on Sept. 28  to forward the proposals to the full group of lawmakers, albeit without a positive or negative recommendation.

Council Majority Leader James Taylor, who also serves on the finance committee, expressed support for the proposed agreements, explaining that some payment was better than nothing. However, Taylor lauded the feedback from students.

“When I went to college, I wasn’t thinking about City Council meetings,” he said during the Sept. 28 meeting. Taylor recalled his time as a student at Providence College decades earlier centered on sporting events, not local politics.

Niyanta Nepal, a junior at Brown and co-president of the Students for Educational Equity, speaks at a rally at Brown University in April. (Courtesy Meg Henning)

Councilor Sue AnderBois, who serves on the finance committee, also stressed the impact of students’ testimony.

“I was blown away by the advocacy we saw over the last couple weeks,” she said in an interview on Friday. “This kind of turnout for students was, in my experience, pretty unprecedented. It wasn’t just the quantity but also really the quality.”

Better organized than past generations

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Student and young adult activism on social justice issues like education, racism and climate change, while difficult to measure, has gained increasing attention and news coverage nationwide.

A 2021 Pew Research Center study also found a higher percentage of Millennials and Generation Z adults involved in climate change advocacy – measured through donations, contact with elected officials, volunteering and attending rallies – compared with older peers. 

But it’s also something potentially unique to Brown, which has long been known as the “activist Ivy.”

Aaron Regunberg, a Brown alumnus who recently ran as a Democratic congressional candidate in Rhode Island, recalled his own student activism in the midst of Providence’s 2011 financial crisis. He and other students signed petitions to try to stop cuts to services amid the city’s budget shortfall and woefully underfunded pension.

But it was nothing like what students have organized for the PILOT proposals — packing City Hall, holding campus rallies and organizational meetings to understand and strategize.

“Students who were involved during my time were using their voices but there was not a profound or deep interest by a large swath of the student body,” said Regunberg, who graduated in 2012.

Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat who graduated from Brown’s public affairs masters program in 2019, also has seen a rise in demonstrative activism among students compared with his time at the university.

“Ideologically, I think students were aligned but in terms of organization happening on the ground, it’s so much more organized now,” Morales said. 

That’s in part thanks to the resurgence of the Brown Activist Coalition. 

The coalition, along with many of the individual activist clubs within it, went quiet during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily shut down the university’s on-campus activities.

But earlier this year, leaders with SEE — one of the only activism groups that maintained a virtual presence during COVID — sought to revive the coalition, kicking off with an informational event at the campus student center.

Power in numbers

What organizers thought would be a handful of students enticed by free pizza turned into a packed crowd of more than 120 people, Nepal said. Since that January event, leaders of each of the dozen individual clubs within the coalition have kept in touch through a text chain and bimonthly meetings to coordinate efforts on various causes.

It’s working. A state bill that would have taxed university endowments up to 2% – though unsuccessful – prompted an outpouring of support among Brown students, including a petition with more than 500 signatures. In April, more than 100 students rallied on campus to demand Brown pay its “fair share” of taxes.

“I do think if you had this agreement and negotiation happened a year or two earlier you would not be seeing this amount of pushback because we were not organized,” Garo said.

While the proposed tax agreements include three other higher educational institutions, only students from Brown spoke during the city’s public hearing.

Isabello Garo, third from left, a senior and community lead with Sunrise Brown, participates in a protest at Brown University in April. (Courtesy Meg Henning)

Nepal thinks that’s at least partly because of Brown’s disproportionate wealth compared with its Providence higher education peers. 

It also comes back to privilege. While Brown’s student activists come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, many have not experienced the type of adversity and hardship documented among the residents who surround their College Hill buildings. 

Nepal, a double major in engineering and education, thinks often about the experiences she’s learned about – and seen firsthand – within Providence Public Schools students compared with her time as a student in her native Concord, New Hampshire.

“When you sit in the classroom and read the Johns Hopkins report, that’s not an experience I can relate to,” she said, referring to the scathing 2019 Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy report detailing structural and educational shortcomings across the capital city school district. “It’s not at all comparable to my experience in high school at all.”

Which is all the more reason she feels compelled to demand that Brown do more – and pay more – for its community, including public school students.

“Come to a very elitist institution like this, based on the statistics,  we will all succeed after leaving here by virtue of this institution being what it is,” Nepal said. “That we’re existing in a community with some of the worst public schools in the country is just jarring.”

The Providence City Council is expected to discuss and vote on the proposed payments at its meeting on Thursday, Oct. 5, at 6 p.m.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.