Remarks at Brown’s 249th Opening Convocation
September 5, 2012
Chancellor Tisch, Chancellor Emeritus Joukowsky, Provost Schlissel, trustees and fellows, senior officers, deans, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of Brown:
As the nineteenth president of Brown University, it is my great pleasure to declare the two-hundred-and-forty-ninth [249th] academic year of Brown University open.
To the one thousand, five hundred and forty-one [1,541] members of Brown’s greatest-ever Class of 2016 …
To the six hundred and twenty  graduate students who are beginning their studies here …
To the newest one hundred and twenty  students in the Warren Alpert Medical School …
To the 64 newly arrived students who had the great good sense to transfer to Brown this year …
And to my 56 new colleagues who are beginning professional academic life at Brown …
… welcome to an extraordinary university at an extraordinary time in our almost 250-year history. I am so happy to be sharing my inaugural year with you.
Who exactly are the new students we welcome today? Already, we know a great deal about you. You are not a random gathering of people. Indeed, you are a community standing for the ideals that we hold sacred:
- that the pursuit of education is noble;
- that the right to learn should not be limited by the ability to pay;
- that diversity is far more than a legal concept, or a mathematical equation – but a profoundly ethical belief that our differences enlighten and enhance us.
The Class of 2016 — the largest group here today — is nothing if not different, in the very best sense of the word. You are a walking, talking, Googling cross-section of humanity. Let me be more specific. There are 1,541 of you – 840 women, and 701 men. You come from 49 out of 50 states. (Sorry, Nebraska.) You represent 57 nations, from Albania to Yemen. All of the major racial and ethnic groups are represented, including 111 who fall into the interesting category, “unknown.” Forty-six percent of you — nearly half — receive some form of financial aid.
Those of you who begin your association with Brown at a point beyond the freshman year —graduate students, medical students, transfers, and four resumed undergraduate education students — you bring an even deeper diversity to the campus community. From twenty-somethings to married with children, your presence and your work in our classrooms, laboratories, and affiliated hospitals will energize and enrich intellectual life at Brown — as Brown unquestionably will enrich yours.
Even though I have only been here a few months, Brown has found a special place in my heart, for its people, its history, and its values. I love Brown’s distinctive approach to learning and to life — not a cookie-cutter philosophy of sameness, but rather, something opposite: a constructive irreverence that makes every day interesting.
Today I’d like to talk about that constructive irreverence: where it comes from, and how it enlightens us. The book the entering undergraduates read this summer, Sons of Providence, helped me appreciate how deeply Brown’s origins have shaped the University we see today. Those origins may seem remote, but they still guide us, just as we move within a physical campus designed by Brown’s founders and their successors.
In those early days, nearly 250 years ago, it was a tiny college with large ambitions. The first president, James Manning, came to you, as I did, from the wilds of New Jersey. For a time, he constituted the entire faculty, while the student body consisted of a single student, William Rogers, who was all of 14 years old. And we think the 9-to-1 student-teacher ratio we have now is good! As you might expect, tuition did not cover many of the college’s expenses, especially since tuition was only $12 in these early years and another $5 for room and board. But the small institution persevered and prospered.
By the time Brown was founded, Rhode Island had already established itself as a place of ill repute, at least as far as the bluenoses of Boston were concerned. Cotton Mather scornfully referred to Rhode Island as the “latrina” of New England. You don’t have to concentrate in Classics to know what that means.
But the main reason the Boston Puritans disliked Rhode Island is something we actually celebrate to this day. Rhode Island’s colonial charter permitted a “lively experiment” to flourish, and demanded that no person be punished for his or her religious views. Rhode Island soon became a very congenial haven for iconoclasts.
If anything defined Rhode Island at all, it was simply that everyone had the same right to constructive irreverence … or, as some called it, heresy.
In many ways, Brown’s freedom descends from these early ideals. The Baptists behind Brown’s creation were hostile to hierarchies, and they sought to create a different kind of college. When it came time to write Brown’s charter, the University’s founders defined it as a “liberal and catholic institution,” with no tests of religious or political correctness, and insisted that “all the Members … shall forever enjoy full, free, Absolute, and uninterrupted Liberty of Conscience.”
Of course, as Sons of Providence makes clear, that liberty was not universal: At the time of Brown’s founding, America was just beginning to question the morality of the slave trade. African Americans, as well as women and members of many other groups, were not welcome as students.
But the principles that were set in place early on paved the way for the more complete understanding of freedom that would come in time.
The arguments over slavery that took place within halls of government, the popular press, and families — or, in Brown’s case, within all three. The brothers Moses and John Brown were often at odds over this issue. Each achieved his own form of irreverence: John toward British authority at the time of the American Revolution, and Moses toward John and the institution of slavery. Moses, by taking that brave stand, called into question some of the most ingrained social norms that prevailed at the time.
As the book illustrates, the debate was often bitter. The wrangling over legislation on the slave trade was riddled with back-door deals and politicking. Vitriolic and personal attacks, written by people on both sides of the issue, were published anonymously in Providence newspapers. If you put aside the fact that the debates were conducted in person and in print — and not broadcast over the world via tweets and blogs — it was not too different from current disagreements over hot-button social issues.
But — and this is what I think is important — the part of the debate that focused on facts, ideas, and a serious consideration of moral principles did have a slow but steady effect on society. The ability of men and women to think independently and with open minds was integral to the spread of the abolition movement that changed the world for the better. This lesson is as relevant today as it has ever been.
A few days ago, when I welcomed the members of the Class of 2016 and their families, I spoke about the important roles that freedom and responsibility play in a Brown education. We give our undergraduates unparalleled independence. But we do not confuse liberty with license; we expect you to use this freedom in a thoughtful and responsible manner.
Our belief is that a combination of freedom and responsibility will let you cultivate the habits of mind that lead to a lifetime of intellectual development and social engagement. Freedom isn’t just about studying the subjects that interest you the most. It is also about looking at the world with fresh eyes and challenging existing norms and points of view. And responsibility doesn’t just mean taking your subjects seriously. It also means giving the ideas and people you encounter in your life — even the ones you decide to challenge — the respect they are entitled to.
Being irreverent without being respectful — challenging ideas without understanding them — will obstruct your ability to learn and ultimately limit your ability to effect change in the world. More immediately, it is certain to annoy your classmates and professors!
I learned an early but valuable lesson in constructive irreverence when I was a freshman in college. It was a small story, as many are, but it was one that stuck with me. I was taking an introductory course in religious studies, and the class was given the assignment of writing a paper on St. Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God. After one superficial read through the proof, I decided that it was simply preposterous: How could the existence of God be proved simply as a matter of pure logic? I planned to write a scathing attack that would reveal every single flaw of this purported “proof.” But I quickly discovered that it was much easier to say that the proof was ridiculous than to carefully explain why it was ridiculous. After writing an opening paragraph, I was stuck.
I asked a senior I knew — a philosophy major by the name of Dan Schwartz — for ideas. He gave me some of the best advice I ever received as a student. In a kind way, he said, “Chris, you could do a better job criticizing the proof if you actually understood it.” That hurt, a little. But he went on to suggest that I write a defense of the proof instead of an attack.
What he was asking me to do, in essence, was to approach the work of an 11th century cleric with the respect that it deserved. By taking the proof on its own terms, I could understand why it had been studied for more than 800 years, and how it fit into the development of a line of philosophical reasoning that continued through to modern times. After writing my defense, I still didn’t think the proof was correct, but at least if I had wanted to write a second paper, I would have been able to explain why.
I hope that you approach your studies at Brown through your own form of constructive irreverence. That means constantly asking yourself if theories are, in fact, logical, and if evidence in support of those theories is watertight. And it means putting forward new ideas that challenge the accepted wisdom of the day, while listening with an open mind to the ideas of others.
I encourage you to bring the same independent thought to your engagements outside of the classroom. In assembling a Brown class, we purposefully select students who come from a wide range of backgrounds and have very different ways of looking at the world. If you choose to engage with others with whom you do not agree, in an open-minded manner, your education will be greatly enriched. If you choose to associate only with people who share your opinions, you will have squandered a tremendous opportunity for personal development.
Universities need constructive irreverence, too. We have to challenge ourselves to embrace changing times and new technologies and to address society’s concerns about the value and future of higher education. I expect that Brown University, as an institution, will take on these issues with the same creativity, openness and thoughtfulness that we demand of our students. Over the coming year, I look forward to working with faculty, administrators, students, and alumni to plan for Brown’s future. Together, we will develop innovative approaches to education and research, while remaining true to our core values of independent and rigorous inquiry, and to our commitment to serve the community, the nation and the world.
Finally, the world needs constructive irreverence, and it specifically needs you. The Van Wickle Gates will open again for you on the day you graduate — I hope with better weather than we have had today — and you will walk back down this hill, out into the world. On that day, I hope you will be prepared to change a world that too often resists change, and too often tolerates the intolerable. To apply this constructive irreverence to the world and all that lies beyond those gates is your challenge, and I hope, your destiny.
I have focused my remarks on Brown’s history, but want to conclude with a piece of recent news. Only a few weeks ago, a highly sophisticated rover called Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars, ready to begin years of exploration. Curiosity was designed with no small input from the scientists of Brown University, whose research centered with great precision on a small spot on Mars that the rover would not reach until it had traveled 350 million miles and survived what the scientists called “seven minutes of terror” in the final approach. In other words, it was a lot like the college application process.
Even after landing, it was important for Curiosity to stay put just for a little while, while the scientists checked everything to make sure it was intact. But inevitably, a vehicle named Curiosity was going to start exploring — as one of the lead scientists said, “unless the rover roves, we really haven’t accomplished anything.”
In a similar spirit, I am giving you your official invitation to rove. Explore the terra incognita of a University that is 248 years old, but is always brand new on a day like today. Develop new ideas. Build something better than what went before. Enjoy your classes, and each other. More than anything, cultivate the constructive irreverence that brought you this far and will continue to propel you through your years at Brown — and into the world that lies just outside those gates.
Thank you very much.