PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Organs, drums and church bells joined in unison to welcome the undergraduate Class of 2018 to Brown University’s Baccalaureate ceremony on Saturday, May 26, a day before the seniors’ degrees would be officially conferred at the University’s 250th Commencement.
The soon-to-be graduates processed along Brown’s traditional route, through Faunce Arch, traversing the College Green, out the 1887 Gate, down Waterman Street and into the open doors of the First Baptist Church in America, which has hosted Brown Commencement ceremonies since 1775.
Two Chinese lion dancers playfully guided the way.
Brown’s Baccalaureate tradition originates in the medieval European custom of presenting candidates with “the laurels of sermonic oration.” This year, honorary degree recipient Beverly Ledbetter, Brown’s chief legal officer since 1978, did the honors with an oration titled “Family, Friends and Faith: Reflections on a Life in Academe.”
Ledbetter looked back on her four-decade tenure at Brown (which will conclude this summer) and imparted a few lessons that she learned along the way. As a woman who grew up in a “predominately black world” in east Texas during the era of desegregation and marched on Washington in 1968 — witnessing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech “front and center” — she applauded Brown students for raising their voices against injustice and she reminded them to work ceaselessly to confront the issues that matter to them.
“You have done more than usher in an era of tolerance and forgiveness,” Ledbetter said. “You have rejected intolerance based on difference. The causes that you have embraced are important. As you continue to speak out against injustice and inequity, I hope you will consider lending your hands as well as your minds.”
Ledbetter said she had no idea as she listened to King speak of not being satisfied “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” how big a role justice would play in her life or how challenging that work would sometimes be.
“There are days that we will persevere, and there are days that we will triumph,” she said. “Sometimes we will not.”
Echoing the interfaith nature of the Baccalaureate, she noted the importance of faith in the lives of graduates — asserting that her definition of faith was broader than allegiance to an organized religion.
“My journey through Brown, like yours, has taken me from the comfort of family and friends and has exposed me to a world that is less certain and full of unseen challenges,” she said. “I hope many of you, as I did, will find some sustenance through faith in the broadest send of that word — a belief that the future will be better and that your work will be central to ensuring better outcomes.”
University President Christina Paxson introduced Ledbetter, calling her “an unsung hero” of Brown, lauding her many years of service to the University and characterizing her as “frank,” “unflappable” and “caring.”
VIDEO: "Saturday Highlights #Brown 2018" by Stephen Crocker
Brown’s take on the time-honored tradition of the Baccalaureate, at times celebratory and at times somber, reflects the diversity of backgrounds and faiths that exist within the University community — with prayers, texts, dances and songs from a variety of religious and secular traditions.
"Every year, Baccalaureate reminds me of how many Browns there are — how many eclectic interests and passions this University represents,” said the Rev. Janet M. Cooper Nelson, the University chaplain who each year oversees the creation of the service. “We are a community of communities. And that is our strength.”
The service included performances by the Brown University Chorus, the Harmonizing Grace gospel group and a capella group Shades of Brown. There was also South Asian dancing, Taiko and Malian drumming, and more frolicking from the lions.
A centerpiece of the ceremony titled “Wisdom From Our Traditions” featured recitations and prayers offered by faculty, staff and students from Mohawk, African ancestral, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist traditions. In introducing the tradition, graduating seniors Nour Asfour, Lily Cohen and Jeanelle Wheeler implored graduates to listen closely to the lessons offered by various cultural traditions, regardless of their faith.
“Let’s listen because the world needs us to listen,” Wheeler said. “And let’s listen because being in this shared space, we have the chance to acknowledge our shared humanity. We have the chance to recognize our capacity to love. To love deeply and unconditionally and to see the Brown community and beyond as family.”
Wheeler, who is a double concentrator in literary arts and French and Francophone studies, was the recipient of the University’s Kapstein Interfaith Leadership Award, which honors a senior who has demonstrated interfaith leadership on campus and beyond. Among other contributions to the faith community at Brown, she served as the social justice coordinator for the Brown-RISD Catholic Community's Pastoral Council. She was also a curricular advising program fellow and a classroom assistant at Dorcas International Institute. Recently, she earned a Fulbright award to teach English in France next year.
“Having this space for both listening and celebration during Baccalaureate that represents a taste of the diversity of our class is, for me, the driving force of Commencement weekend,” Wheeler said before the ceremony began. “Whether you are religious or not, it is a time to reflect on and rejoice in the vibrancy of our class.”
In addition to Ledbetter, the ceremony offered the chance to recognize another member of the Brown community who will soon depart — Dean of the College Maud Mandel, who will become the 18th president of Williams College this summer.
“You have led with intelligence and humanity and grace,” Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Eric Estes said in a tribute to Mandel. “You have given your very best to Brown, and you represent the very best of Brown.”
The Baccalaureate concluded with a benediction led by the Rev. Albert Duggan, associate chaplain of the University for the Catholic community, and Megan O’Brien Crayne, campus minister for the Brown-RISD Catholic Community.
“Go now in peace and rejoicing,” they told the Class of 2018 graduates. “And may all your days be blessed.”
VIDEO: Brown University's 2018 Baccalaureate address by honorary degree recipient Beverly Ledbetter