President Clayton Rose announced last week that Arthur C. Brooks will be the inaugural Joseph McKeen Visiting Fellow next year. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank, represents a commitment to “the Common Good, broadly defined,” said Rose.
Brooks has been the president of the Washington-based think tank since 2009. He will be stepping down from this position in a few months to join the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School. He visited campus in October 2017 to participate in a moderated discussion with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni titled “Speaking Face-to-Face When We Don’t See Eye-to-Eye.”
Following the event, Rose approached Sarah Seames, director of the McKeen Center for the Common Good, with the idea of bringing Brooks back to campus. Seames saw this proposal as the perfect opportunity to develop a visiting fellow program, which the McKeen Center had been considering for many years.
“[This program] is really the confluence of our desire at the McKeen Center to build a visiting scholars program that would allow us to bring accomplished people with different ideas to Bowdoin, and the availability of Dr. Brooks, whom President Rose got to know when he visited the College in 2017,” said Seames in an email to the Orient.
While it has not yet been determined exactly what Brooks will be doing when he visits campus, it is likely that he will be giving talks, participating in classes and meeting with students and faculty in both formal and informal settings, said Rose.
Rose and Seames hope that Brooks and future McKeen Visiting Fellows will contribute to the Bowdoin community’s consideration of the common good.
“We’re careful in the McKeen Center not to define the common good but to help students find experiences and engage in critical conversations that help them form their own definition of the concept,” said Seames. “Dr. Brooks has his own perspective on the common good, informed by his own experiences, and we hope that through engaging with him, our students will better understand their own beliefs.”
“How we operationalize the common good in ordinary life is a question worthy of a great college like Bowdoin, so I hope to help facilitate an exploration of policy, politics, culture and the role higher education can play in these things,” said Brooks in an email to the Orient.
Some students raised objections about the decision to bring Brooks to campus in the name of promoting the common good.
Nina Alvarado-Silverman ’19, a McKeen fellow, said there was not a conversation amongst student fellows before Brooks’s appointment. She did not know about Brooks receiving the fellowship until the campus-wide announcement.
“I think that the McKeen Center is an excellent place to actually reach across difference. I think that it’s definitely one of the top places on campus where students are engaging with people who are different than them, have different life experiences and maybe different political beliefs, and we learn to do that in a reflective and compassionate way through our work in the community,” said Alvarado-Silverman. “I do not think that Arthur Brooks will at all help advance that goal.”
Alvarado-Silverman was concerned about a YouTube video Brooks had appeared in called “If You Hate Poverty, You Should Love Capitalism.” The video was posted on a channel called PragerU, which also has videos titled “Who Needs Feminism?,” “There Is No Gender Wage Gap” and “Preferred Pronouns or Prison.”
“I think that anyone who aligns themselves with such a divisive program that markets themselves as an academic institution when they’re just simply not … has no place on this campus and shouldn’t have a place speaking publicly about anything,” said Alvarado-Silverman. “And I think that bringing him to campus is irresponsible and really disappointing.”
“I think that [Brooks] has devoted his entire professional career to laundering racism and greed into forms that are palatable for posh dinner parties,” said Ethan Winter ’19. “He has no business being at Bowdoin, least of all attached to the McKeen Center which is supposed to advance the common good.”
Winter finds Brooks’s ideology problematic because it places the responsibility for poverty on people who are not economically privileged. He said that Brooks has sometimes characterized society as divided into “takers,” who do not pay their share, and “makers,” who contribute to economic growth.
“[He] has devoted his entire career to abetting the redistribution of wealth upwards,” Winter said. “There’s no honor or notion of the common good in that.”
For his part, Brooks said he was quite impressed by his visit to campus last year, and he is greatly looking forward to joining the College community this fall.
“If we’re serious about bringing people together in the face of nontrivial differences, there has to be a willingness to actually do the hard work of engaging with those on the ‘other side,’” wrote Brooks. “I believe this is a community that has the will to do that and that can therefore build a model of productive dialogue in a country that badly needs it.”
Nina McKay contributed to this report.