Brown University began its 15-month semiquincentenary celebration Friday and Saturday March 7-8, 2014, with an open house for faculty, students, staff, alumni, and visitors from across Rhode Island and Massachusetts. (A summary of the Opening Celebration is also available on the Imagine Brown 250+ website.)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — It was a party for the ages. Two-hundred and fifty years to be exact. In a weekend of celebration and discovery, performances and lectures, fireworks and cake — oh, what a cake — that brought thousands of community members, alumni, students, faculty and staff to campus, the University kicked off its 15-month semiquincentenary celebration with a blowout bash. (More about the bash at Imagine Brown 250+.)

A community gathering

As the sun set Friday afternoon, a crowd began to gather on the College Green, lending a festive feel to a normally quiet time of the week. Around 5 p.m. a white van pulled up in front of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center. Onlookers waited with bated breath as a team carefully unloaded what was to become the centerpiece of the night’s celebration: a 600-pound birthday cake that was a spot-on replica of University Hall, complete with scaled-down Van Wickle gates made from black icing.

The cake arrives: The cake looked so much like a miniature University Hall, one visitor first thought it was made of foam. It was entirely edible. Thousands of slices later, it was gone.
The cake arrives The cake looked so much like a miniature University Hall, one visitor first thought it was made of foam. It was entirely edible. Thousands of slices later, it was gone.
Covered in an aged-brick fondant façade, the inside was half red velvet and half chocolate cake, a nod to Brown’s colors. It took a nearly a dozen people to hoist the grand confection up the stairs and place it under a waiting white tent. First-year student Yesenia Valverde was among those nervously watching the cake be set into place. She said she was surprised to see how realistic it appeared. “I thought ‘Is that the cake?’ It looks like it’s made out of foam.”

Inside Sayles Hall, alumni were reuniting and students and staff were enjoying food and drinks at a campus reception. As the hall filled, President Christina Paxson appeared on stage to introduce The Brown Difference, a film created for the 250th anniversary by Oren Jacoby and Betsy West, both Brown alumni and parents. The film takes viewers through some of the highlights of Brown’s history and notable achievements. Viewing the film, alumnus Brice Eldridge of Virginia, said it brought back many memories, particularly the protest scenes. “I arrived here in September of ’62 and by the time I left, this place had gone through a real revolution. There was a lot of change and integration that happened on campus.”

The first slice: After toasts by Sen. Jack Reed and Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, President Christina Paxson, Vice Chancellor Jerome Vascellaro, and Chancellor Thomas Tisch did the honors. Credit: Frank Mullin/Brown University
The first slice After toasts by Sen. Jack Reed and Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, President Christina Paxson, Vice Chancellor Jerome Vascellaro, and Chancellor Thomas Tisch did the honors. Credit: Frank Mullin/Brown University
Outside, thousands of guests students, alumni and guests had gathered on the College Green for the fireworks and cake. Government officials and others offered toasts, and President Paxson and Chancellor Thomas Tisch cut into the cake as the crowd roared. Soon after fireworks shot from the roof of University Hall and lit up the night sky in a rainbow of colors as students watched from the second floor windows of Sayles, high above the ooh-ing and ahhh-ing crowd.

Accomplished Alumni

The weekend’s events brought several of Brown’s well-known alumni back to campus to take part in the festivities. The Brown community packed the Salomon Center for Teaching on Friday afternoon to hear World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, a 1982 Brown graduate, deliver an Ogden Lecture. Kim spoke about his experiences at Brown and took questions from the audience on everything from climate change to the situation in Ukraine. Much of his talk focused on the importance of activism and social change. “If you are here today and you graduate from Brown, you are ready to tackle the world,” Kim said. “Please, go change the world.”

Jim Yong Kim, World Bank president: “Please, go change the world.” Credit: Frank Mullin/Brown University
Jim Yong Kim, World Bank president “Please, go change the world.” Credit: Frank Mullin/Brown University
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, a 1983 graduate, also returned to Brown to take part in Saturday’s President’s Colloquium. Perez delivered the keynote address, a discussion with Richard Locke, director of the Watson Institute, on a variety of topics, including his work as head of the Department of Labor, where he oversees 17,000 employees and 20 agencies, and his path from Brown to Washington. “So much of my career has been about expanding opportunity,” Perez said. “What I learned (at Brown) gave me the moral, ethical, and intellectual foundation for much of what I did.”

Many of the panelists at the colloquium were also celebrating a homecoming, with those alumni and other experts speaking on politics, technology, filmmaking, and foreign policy. The auditorium in Salomon remained full for much of the day, with students and community members leaving and arriving for the four sessions.

Thomas Perez, U.S. Secretary of Labor: “(Brown) gave me the moral, ethical, and intellectual foundation.” Credit: Frank Mullin/Brown University
Thomas Perez, U.S. Secretary of Labor “(Brown) gave me the moral, ethical, and intellectual foundation.” Credit: Frank Mullin/Brown University
Students in Training

Throughout the weekend, hundreds of local children and teens took part in events on campus that were planned just for them.

Friday began with the arrival of more than 250 middle schoolers from around the state to take part in a day of discovery on campus. Students played with robots and drones, journeyed into the virtual reality Cave, and took in the Garibaldi Panorama, among other activities. Pairs of schools attended both a science and humanities session before eating lunch in the Ratty.

On Saturday, while the colloquium was underway in Salomon, much of the campus was open for the public, who came for lab demonstrations, lectures, and tours. The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts was buzzing with kids and their parents, who hopped from room to room to take in the various offerings.

The pop-up Rhode Island Museum of Science and Art was a particularly popular room. In one corner, Zoe Corbin, 9, of Providence, was creating a spinning animation of a bicycle with her dad, Jim. The pair had already been to many sites on campus, including the bat lab and the greenhouse on top of the newly renovated Building for Environmental Research and Teaching. “I think I liked the virtual reality the best,” said Zoe, referring to the interactive demonstrations in Sidney E. Frank Hall. “We came because there were a lot of interesting activities taking place and it’s a chance to visit buildings that we see every day that we don’t normally get to see the inside of,” Jim said.

Best field trip ever!: The weekend celebration began at 8:15 Friday morning with the arrival of more than 250 seventh- and eighth-graders from across Rhode Island. It was a day of discovery and memory-making. Credit: Scott Kingsley for Brown University
Best field trip ever! The weekend celebration began at 8:15 Friday morning with the arrival of more than 250 seventh- and eighth-graders from across Rhode Island. It was a day of discovery and memory-making. Credit: Scott Kingsley for Brown University
Downstairs, in the “New Sounds, New Instruments” room, Ph.D. student Akiko Hatakeyama was demonstrating the music box-like machine she had created. Pulling a string from the wooden box activates the mechanism to play music. The faster the string is pulled, the faster the music plays. Eight-year-old Simon Robbins from Barrington was getting a hands-on lesson, grabbing at the string as fast as he could. “Does the string ever run out?” he asked, inciting laughter from onlookers. His father, Michael, brought Simon and his brother, Asher, 10, to campus for the day to sample the activities. They were headed to the robotics lab next.

Outside, the campus landscape was teeming with younger faces, as children, enjoying the warmer weather, ran across green spaces and played among the public art, a fitting counterpart to the remarkable milestone they were there to celebrate and a joyful end to a weekend of celebration.