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Boston Globe

Slavery and justice: We seek to discover the meaning of our past

Ruth J. Simmons
April 28, 2004

Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice will investigate and discuss an uncomfortable piece of the University’s — and our nation’s — history. The Committee’s work is not about whether or how reparations should be paid. Rather, it will do the difficult work of scholarship, debate and civil discourse, demonstrating how difficult, uncomfortable and valuable this process can be.

Simmons Public discourse in the United States — including that on many college campuses — is so saturated with emotional venting, name-calling and one-sided statements that fewer and fewer people are willing to discuss serious ideas in an open setting. The tragic consequence of this poisonous environment is that many able citizens will neither stand for public office nor entertain a position that might expose them to this indecorous behavior.

There are many who believe that universities have exacerbated this problem by failing in their civic responsibility to create a platform for the robust, uncontrived exchange of ideas. They complain that because of the current competitive climate, fundraising demands and diverse composition of campuses, faculty and administrators are unwilling to take on difficult questions that might result in the disaffection of any group.

Brown University’s new Committee on Slavery and Justice, a faculty and student investigation of an uncomfortable piece of our university’s — and our nation’s — history, is designed to foster discussion of the difficult subject in ways that prepare students to engage in and promote the meaningful exchange of ideas. The committee was formed on the belief that powerful debate is one of the hallmarks of intellectual engagement and that universities do well when they encourage examination that rests on a factual rather than an emotional basis. They also do well when they educate students about how to accept and make use of the variety of valid approaches and opinions that can proliferate on any one subject.

The purpose of this undertaking is to enable a group of university scholars to investigate the origins of Brown University, with attention to the educational insights such a study might provide our students and the wider community. This review, though important in its own right, is especially important for an institution like Brown that was founded in 1764, a period in our nation’s history when nearly all commerce and wealth was in some manner entangled with the slave trade. For example, construction of the University’s first building involved the labor of Providence area slaves. Nearly all universities and organizations with roots in this era have similar stories, often revealed with varying levels of candor. At Brown, many alumni and students have been offended by our unwillingness to confront our past in an honest and forthright manner. Understandably proud of their association with the University, they asked that we clarify this history in the full light of what we could uncover through rigorous scholarship.

In addition, in view of the often confusing and contentious discussion of reparations, we wanted to move the examination away from a focus on reparations to learn more about the many ways in which societies past and present have dealt with retrospective justice following human rights violations such as genocide, internment, and certain forms of discrimination. We thought that our students would benefit from an understanding of those histories and experiences. Finally, we hoped that such an effort, rooted in our particular history, would excite interest among students and help them appreciate and accept meaningful discourse on even the most troubling subjects.

The Committee’s work is not about whether or how we should pay reparations. That was never the intent nor will the payment of reparations be the outcome. This is an effort designed to involve the campus community in a discovery of the meaning of our past.

So often, students — and citizens — take the purpose of debate to be that of stating to others their point of view rather than improving their understanding by engaging strongly opposing arguments. Quite to the contrary, our Committee on Slavery and Justice brings together different approaches and views to model the use of rigor, discipline, breadth, objectivity and diversity in the search for truth. The Committee therefore allows us to demonstrate how difficult, uncomfortable and valuable this process can be. Understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy. But, then, it doesn’t have to be.

Ruth J. Simmons is the eighteenth president of Brown University.