Remarks at Opening Convocation
Tuesday, September 3, 2103, 4 p.m.
The College Green
Remarks as prepared 

Fellows and trustees of the Corporation, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students, it is my great pleasure, as President of Brown University, to declare the 250th academic year open.

I extend a special welcome to the members of the entering classes of the graduate school, medical school and the college. Among them are:

  • 124 dedicated medical students
  • 639 creative and talented master’s and doctoral students
  • 9 brilliant RUE scholars
  • 70 very wise and perceptive transfer students
  • And of course 1,550 exceptional first-year students who help to make up the phenomenal class of 2017

This is a special year at Brown: in March, we begin the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the University’s founding. Because history is in the air, I would like to remind you of the events that led to the beginnings of this remarkable University.

As our 70 Rhode Island natives in the Class of 2017 know, Rhode Islanders are fiercely proud of this state’s distinctive contributions to American history. And rightly so. The reason we are here today on College Hill stems from Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. His trip here was unlike the recent journeys many of you made from your homes to Brown. He came from Massachusetts, by canoe. He landed his boat on one side of College Hill – near the Dunkin’ Donuts on Gano Street – before heading around to the other side, and establishing his homestead near the location of the Roger Williams National Memorial.

Williams came here under difficult circumstances: he had been banished by the leaders of Massachusetts for his heretical opinions: the peculiar view that Indians ought to hold title to their own land, and the audacious belief that religion and government should be separate.

After Williams arrived, he made an essential decision to permit others to join him whether they agreed with his opinions or not: Quakers, and Jews, and writers and printers who couldn’t work within Boston’s tight strictures.

Williams’ philosophy became woven into the state’s fiber. The charter of “Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations,” written more than 350 years ago, described Rhode Island as a “lively experiment” that would welcome people from all religious backgrounds.

That the state was described as an “experiment” — and a lively one, at that — implies that there was doubt in some quarters that people with different religious beliefs could co-exist in peace.

But, although the state has had its share of raucous and difficult moments, the experiment was successful. The ideas of religious liberty, and separation of church and state, spread from Rhode Island and became the bedrock of this nation.

When Brown University was founded 100 years later, it followed the Rhode Island model of welcoming students without regard to their religious affiliations. Specifically, Brown’s charter stated that “all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience.” The openness expressed in our charter was perfected over the years, as Brown came to welcome women, and members of all racial and ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and nationalities.

Why is this history relevant now, 250 years later? Because each and every year at Brown is, in fact, a “lively experiment.”

Each year, we bring together a group of exceptionally talented students, chosen not just for their outstanding SAT, GRE, and MCAT scores, but also for their outstanding ability to think critically and behave collaboratively.

Not just because of their amazing artistic and athletic achievements, but also for the amazing curiosity, creativity and determination they bring to their work.

Not just because of their great grade point averages, but also because of their great potential to lead.

Our aim — and I believe that we succeed in this aim — is to assemble a community of women and men who care deeply about making a positive impact on the world; who are dedicated, joyful and, yes, lively.

Finally, and perhaps most important, each year we welcome a community of scholars with a great breadth of experience and diversity of backgrounds. Just like Rhode Island at the time of its founding, we do not want everyone to be cut from the same cloth.

As we look around today, we see people whose views on life have been shaped by experiences very different from our own. We learn from each other. We change each other. In many instances, we disagree with each other. But we wouldn’t have it any other way, because we know that it is only through regular and personal interactions with people who are different from ourselves that we develop our values, hone our senses of empathy, and define the people we want to be.

I noted before that the experiment of Rhode Island was a success. However, we see similar experiments around the world that do not fare as well. Just in the past months, the optimism that came with the Arab Spring has been replaced by great concern about the future of Egypt and sorrow at the loss of life in Syria.

As the experience of the United States and many other great nations shows, it is not a quick or simple process to build societies founded on the ideals of liberty and tolerance. It takes the dedicated perseverance of people who can see beyond their own intellectual and cultural boundaries, and who have the courage to act on their beliefs.

My best hope for members of this community is that your time at Brown will help you become such people. If that happens, our “lively experiment” will truly have been a success.