PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — To a soundtrack of bells tolling and bagpipes playing, Brown University’s 2,693 newest undergraduate, graduate and medical students processed through the Van Wickle Gates and along a path lined with cheering families and applauding faculty and staff on Tuesday, Sept. 4.
After a short march across the Quiet Green, the students — who arrived in Providence from all corners of the globe and representing nearly every socioeconomic group, political persuasion, religious affiliation and cultural background — gathered on the College Green for the University’s 255th Opening Convocation, launching their Brown academic careers and formally opening the 2018-19 academic year.
For the 1,657 first-year undergraduates who participated, the ceremonial opening culminated a weekend packed with introductory events, from residence hall move-ins and Orientation activities to family farewells, First Readings with new classmates and more.
Presiding over her seventh Opening Convocation ceremony, University President Christina Paxson welcomed the incoming class with an urge to consider a phrase from Brown’s mission statement, which describes “a partnership of students and teachers in a unified community.” What does it mean to be unified in a time of visceral division, Paxson asked — especially considering the tremendous diversity of perspectives on campus?
“To me, it comes down to standing for shared values,” she said. “Even as all of us embody a broad range of perspectives and worldviews, there is a core set of values that animate Brown University... Seeking truth. Knowledge in the service of society. Respect for human dignity. These are the values that drive our actions each and every day — they are the values that unify us.”
Paxson illustrated for the newest students on College Hill how current members of the Brown community breathe life to those values each semester.
Amanda Lynch, who leads the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, is researching the retreat of Arctic sea ice and what it means to indigenous herding and fishing populations, she said — the kind of scholarship that not only creates new knowledge on how human activity is changing the face of the planet, but informs policies that serve the common good.
VIDEO: President Christina Paxson's 2018 Convocation Address: "A Unified Community"
“We demonstrate our values in the way that we respond to the assault on science, perhaps most salient in the questioning of climate change, its existence and its consequences,” Paxson said.
Separately, visiting professor and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Breton and a team of Brown undergraduates employed investigative journalism skills to delve into elder abuse in Rhode Island, Paxson noted. A nine-part Providence Journal series culminated just yesterday and came at a moment when public trust in journalistic principles is routinely undermined, she said.
“It shines a light on truth, reveals knowledge that will hopefully lead to reform and calls out a shameful lack of respect for human dignity,” Paxson said of the Brown-inflected elder abuse series. “It is the opposite of fake news.”
Brown’s values are also evident in the power of memory and history to distill eternal truths, Paxson said — particularly about the legacy of slavery, the struggle for civil rights and the unfinished business of securing racial equality in America. Later this month, as Brown hosts its upcoming Black Alumni Reunion, the community will remember the transformative Black Student Walkout of 1968.
“This moment set in motion five decades of work by faculty, staff and students to make this University a more inclusive, welcoming place for all,” Paxson said. That work includes the groundbreaking report on Brown’s role in the slave trade, the creation of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, and the launch of the University’s action plan on diversity and inclusion.
“Pursuit of truth, belief in the transformative power of knowledge, respect for the dignity of everyone — these are the values that unite us at Brown...” Paxson said. “These are the values that turn differences into opportunities, the unknown into adventure and education into true learning.”
Following the president’s remarks, Brown Provost Richard M. Locke gave the keynote address in which he welcomed new students and invited them to capitalize on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that their time at Brown will offer to make a positive impact in the world.
The professor of political science and public affairs told students that his own undergraduate journey began 40 years ago, as a first-generation college student in a new, unfamiliar world that he did not yet have the roadmap — the cultural capital — to navigate. Yet four decades later, beyond what he had dared to imagine, he has the privilege of teaching at Brown and welcoming new students to campus.
VIDEO: Provost Richard Locke's 2018 Convocation Address: "The Opportunity of a Lifetime"
“Each of you is about to embark on a journey that will challenge you to learn new things, develop new skills and re-think your prior assumptions, your own conventional wisdom about many, many different issues…” he said. “If you are open to both challenging conventional wisdom and to being challenged, you will sharpen your ideas and learn and grow in new and expansive ways. This is what university life is all about.”
Locke provided examples of how Brown research has overturned prior assumptions — from the discovery of water on the surface of the moon to new insights on patterns of infant mortality in the U.S. to his own work overturning the conventional wisdom of the economic necessity of exploiting workers in developing nations.
He also emphasized the challenges facing American universities at a time when we are witnessing “an outright attack on higher education and its core values” — proposals to tax tuition scholarships and endowments, attacks on research related to reproductive health and environmental sustainability, and efforts by the federal government to roll back policies that allow universities to include race as one of many factors considered in admission decisions.
“This would impact our ability to fulfill our very mission as a university...” Locke said. “It is precisely by bringing together talented individuals from different national, racial, ethnic, gender, religious, political and class backgrounds and identities that we are able to challenge and be challenged, and to continue to be agents of social mobility and positive social change.”
Locke said that while his own experience as the first in his family to attend college changed the trajectory of his own life, it is simultaneously a collective story about taking advantage of the incredible opportunities offered at an institution like Brown to make a positive impact.
“It is also a story of our future, the future of society, if we are able to leverage all that higher education has to offer to address some of society’s most pressing challenges...” he said. “Take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, have fun in the process and help to make the world a better place.”
With that advice in hand and the academic year officially in session, new students will join those returning to Brown as fall semester classes begin on Wednesday, Sept. 5.