Distributed September 4, 2001
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Mark Nickel

Ruth J. Simmons

Text of the President’s Opening Convocation Address

Ruth J. Simmons, 18th president of Brown University, addressed the student body, faculty, staff and administration at Opening Convocation Tuesday, Sept.4. 2001. The text of the President’s address follows here.

Vice Chancellor Marie Langlois, Chancellor Emeritus Artemis Joukowsky, trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of Brown:

T.S. Eliot commented that history is a pattern of timeless moments. Today, this is such a moment. And in this timeless moment under the watchful glance of history, we assemble to open this 238th year of Brown University.

I’m aware that as I address you today, I am making history as the first ... Texan ... to lead this great University. [Laughter and sustained applause.]

This assembly takes place in the presence of edifices that time has endowed with a patina of glory and embossed with the names of honorable sons and daughters of Brown. The majesty of our surroundings suggests the nobility of the work soon to be resumed in the offices, classrooms, laboratories, corridors, carrels, rehearsal rooms, studios, lecture halls, sports pavilions, cultural centers, and athletic fields. Now you may think me a bit extravagant to speak of nobility but I believe that knowledge is glory work and that those who embark upon that effort with serious intent and integrity as their guide are righteous in their cause.

In addressing you this morning I am taking the place of a faculty member who normally opens the year with an address at Opening Convocation. There is something you need to know - and for others, you need to be reminded – that it is to the faculty we look for the central leadership in this undertaking. The university is an enterprise that is in all of its scholarly parts wrought by faculty, improved upon by faculty, held in equilibrium by faculty, pushed to excellence by faculty. What greatness and virtue are to be found here mainly derives from the character and caring of the dedicated scholars who are guardians of the academy. It is they who fought for the independent pursuit of knowledge, they who have opened new frontiers of learning, they who have given society its heroic scientific and technological advances. Society is in their debt.

We have welcomed this year, as you have heard, 1,379 members of the class of 2005, [sustained applause], 398 graduate students, 75 medical students, nine students resuming their studies and six transfer students. These newcomers are varied by age, prior experience, geographical origin, religious affiliation, personal traits and preferences, talents, race and culture – all exemplary by their records of achievement. They join accomplished students in the classes of 2002 [applause] ... 2003 [applause] ... and 2004 [applause], who have already made an outstanding mark upon the University. Brown is fortunate to have in all of you some of the most exemplary scholars in the world today.

You seekers of knowledge have every resource within reach. Collections of many types; laboratories in which to examine, test and interpret phenomena; technologies that help to analyze and hasten work; studios for art making and word work; facilities that improve fitness of mind and body. Virtually everything is at hand for academic exploration and intellectual stimulation. And yet, our environment cannot grant us utensils to grasp such essential qualities as attentiveness, open-mindedness, steadfastness, resilience, ethics and concern for others. These elements also fuel the light of understanding – a light that is requisite to the deepest levels of meaning. Last spring, the light of understanding flickered on campus revealing how close at hand darkness can be. Such troubles are as old as knowledge itself. Because whatever level of intelligence we attain, whatever the time we expend in the service of intellectual growth, however high the pursuit of learning takes us, we still must rely on the simple and enduring qualities and values that preserve peace and understanding among peoples.

I will not revisit the circumstances that brought about the difficulties and divisions on our campus, for what does it matter which match caused a conflagration? Having all journeyed here for the sake and furtherance of learning, we are defined by that purpose, and our compact as members of this learning community is clear. While other types of communities devise covenants so as to avoid conflict, our covenant is rooted in quarrel, in opposition. We encourage ideas and opinions to collide in the service of learning. We freely trespass boundaries, criticize each other’s views, test every theory. No idea is beyond range or out of bounds. To be sure, there are rules – but such rules give wide berth to the expression of ideas, and that freedom of idea of expression is the very bedrock of scholarly investigation. Although universities owe much of their ideals, customs and costumes to medieval ecclesiastical traditions, most who carry on these traditions today are not monks or clerics. Still, we have no less duty to the sacred obligation to protect the light of the world. And that light is the never-ending search for truth. As scholars, it is our responsibility to love truth and to seek to keep that light glowing brightly from generation to generation.

Now you will say, I am sure, that truth is uncertain and elusive, and that is surely so. Yet as signatories of this solemn compact, we can make the journey of truth seekers and truth tellers safe, whether they arrive at the desired destination or not. Their journey is a dangerous one. There are those who wait along the way, prepared to hijack the vehicles of truth. There are purveyors who would delay and distract those who journey from their goal. There are byways that promise better rewards if one would but turn away from the search. By entering this University, each of you has also become a guardian of free expression. Your task will be onerous, I’m sure, for you will be tempted many times in your life to close off the route to free expression because there will be brigands who are adept at using this path for nefarious purposes. If we are to safeguard our current freedom and the means to restore that freedom when it is wrested from us, the path must remain passable, even when the dishonorable must pass upon it also.

Knowledge is rooted in freedom of speech and inquiry. Over the centuries, freedom of speech has overturned tyranny, led new populations of learners to the academy, discredited erroneous and biased scholarship disguised as factual and objective knowledge, and opened new fields and approaches. The protection of speech that is offensive or insulting to us is one of the most difficult things that we do. But it is this same freedom that protects us when we are in turn powerless. It is easy enough to exist in a realm where everyone is likeminded and speaks only of unimportant matters. That’s easy. While comfort may be found in silence, truth cannot dwell there. Each of us must raise our voices to advance what is known.

Of course, in a community of learning, we hope that you will all use this freedom responsibly. We expect that you will not be reckless or deliberately assault, intimidate harass or harm others under the guise of free speech. You will hear many exhortations to be kind, to be just. To be considerate of others. Such exhortations are to be expected when we live in a community, and you will certainly hear me say over and over again how much I hope you will work hard to care about the people who sit next to you, to go out of your way to avoid hurting people when you don’t need to. You’ll hear me say that all the time. However, don’t be fooled by these admonitions. They should not interfere with the confidence you feel as a learner to be exacting and rigorous in your thoughts and uncompromising in the expression of your opinion. I hope you will use every means at your disposal to do so with tact and aplomb. Even if you don’t have that humane touch – even without it – you must not avoid expressing your opinion and engaging those of others. If you fail to do so, you will not – you cannot – be a full beneficiary of the process of learning.

I won’t ask you to embrace someone who offends your humanity through the exercise of free speech. But I would ask you to understand that the price of your own freedom is permitting the expression of such opinions. We will not stop hoping that men and women will rise above gratuitously specious utterances, but even if they do not, we must fight with all the force within us to preserve their right to be heard even as we work hard to expose the error of their logic. This thing, bitter as it is, is the nectar of our republic and the basis of university life. To learn in this place is to submit to the tyranny and discomfort of this freedom. I believe that learning at its best is the antithesis of comfort. The process of discovery need not make us feel good and secure.

You know something that I hate? When people say, “That doesn’t make me feel good about myself,” I say, “That’s not what you’re here for.” If you come to this place for comfort, I would urge you to walk to yon iron gate, pass through the portal and never look back. [Applause.] But if you seek betterment for yourself, for your community and posterity, stay and fight. Fight for the courage to be a true learner. Fight for the dignity of your intellect. Fight for the compact that preserves our liberty. For the privilege of being in a place that is dedicated to overturning lies. Fight for the place that each of you has earned in the timeless moments of the history of Brown.

I’m haunted by an encounter that I had as an undergraduate. A nameless girl, from my undergraduate years. I never heard her name and I never saw her after my undergraduate years. When I was your age, I was like many of such an age – confident of my opinions. I was passionate in my views, particularly about the manifest evil of apartheid and its adherents in South Africa. One day in the middle of a classroom discussion about apartheid, in which every student in the classroom agreed with me that apartheid was corrupt and indefensible, a lone young white South African woman spoke up in class and defended her way of life. Her voice was at once courageous and plaintive. “It’s our country, too,” she said. I have now forgotten all the comments of those in the class who spoke against the horror of apartheid, a hideous system that has now been justly abolished. But I have never forgotten these simple words spoken in opposition to my own. They taught me more about the need for discourse in the learning process than all the books I subsequently read. And I have regretted for 30 years that I did not engage this woman’s assertions instead of dismissing her as racist. And I have tried to set that mistake right for all of my career. Those moments will come to you in this place. You can look away, you can turn away when they do, or you can engage them and not look back 30 years later wishing that you had the opportunity to do it.

Every morning that I get up, I walk though the streets of College Hill in the shadow of noble facades shaped by artisans of bygone eras. I pass under magnificent canopies thrown by majestic elms that have been witness to enormous change in our society. And when I reach my office and find my way to my desk, I face portraits from the past of this great University. Their visages were initially quite jarring to me. I couldn’t somehow feel comfortable under their glances. Some of the founders and benefactors of our great University were holders or traders of slaves. They didn’t think a woman’s mind was equal to that of a man. But such was the fact of life in the colonies when this space was created. We must not hide from that fact, for it is a part of our past, and in speaking its truth, we not only let the light in, but we give it air, making it shine more brightly. As a descendent of slaves, I’m incapable of seeing the practice of slave holding as a just enterprise. No matter what people tell me, I will never be able to comprehend that. As a woman, I cannot be an apologist for the injustice of discrimination which endured for so many years in our society. But I am not here to alter what cannot be changed, nor to condemn what is in the past. I am here to affirm what the University has become today, and what it aspires to be. There is dignity in who we are and the path we have chosen today. Let us be judged by that.

Last year this community grappled with difficult issues of free speech. To forget that difficulty is not the way to knowledge. I hope we will find the means to set again upon the path of knowledge by voicing our opinions about that dilemma and moving definitively beyond it by making ourselves a community that amicably works to absorb the challenges of truth seeking and truth telling. Today let us choose to focus on redefining the ways in which we can value life and respect difference. What a rich, rich legacy we all have. Both successes and errors of the past teach us about what the future can be. For my part, I choose to stand up on this hill to try to write a new chapter for the generations to come. I choose to embrace the obligations of membership in this community and I promise to do so even when the weight of history is heavy and my discomfort is great. The journey toward reconciliation and a more enlightened world is a difficult one, but if we travel it in the spirit of truth, openness and mutual respect, it will be, I can assure you a far more satisfying journey.

Welcome to this quarrelsome enterprise that we call a university. Enjoy.