Thank you Jim and Marcy, for your kind introduction, and a warm welcome to all of the parents and alumni who are here this evening!
You know, Family and Alumni Weekend has barely begun and I am already moved by the many scenes of Brown students reuniting with their families and Brown alumni reconnecting with classmates! Your presence here is indeed a reminder that Brown is very much a family.
This is the first of several opportunities I’ll have to spend time with you over the next few days. I look forward to seeing any parents who want to participate in my Q & A session right here at Simmons Quad at 4:00 tomorrow, and to greeting alumni at the Alumni Recognition Ceremony & Reception tomorrow evening!
And of course, there is football — Brown versus Princeton over at the stadium. As you may know, I came to Brown from Princeton. It should not surprise you that I will not be wearing orange and black, and I willexpect a Brown victory.
Now, Family and Alumni Weekend is the first of two very important back-to-back weekends here at Brown. Many of you know that next weekend, as members of the Brown Corporation meet in their role as stewards of the University, we will launch a comprehensive campaign aimed at nothing less than achieving a new level of academic excellence — for current students and for generations to come.
This is a big moment — really, a defining moment for Brown. This evening, I want to share with you our vision for the future and the vision that will be supported by the campaign. It is a vision built around investment in our top priorities. A vision of tomorrow’s Brown, prepared to solve tomorrow’s challenges.
The basic building blocks of all universities are the same: people, programs, and the campus community they generate.
What differentiates universities is how these building blocks are put together. The way we put them together at Brown is deeply informed by the Open Curriculum, a philosophy that guides our overall approach to education.
And so what I want to talk about tonight is how the University will meet the bold aspirations it has set for the building blocks of tomorrow’s Brown.
- How we will invest in people who are absolutely committed to rigorous, independent intellectual inquiry;
- How we will support academic programs that foster collaboration and bring these people and their ideas together in inventive and beneficial ways;
- And how we will build and sustain a campus community that supports our unique academic approach, as well as full, active lives of members of the Brown community.
By the end of my talk, I want you to know how the transformative work we are doing at Brown shows up in student’s day-to-day lives. I want you to feel in your bones what it means to learn in an Open Currriculum, today and in the future. I want you to see how Brown’s distinctive brand of teaching and research can Open Doors and transform lives.
And I want you to believe in Brown, as I do — not because I serve as its president or because my youngest son Ben is a first-year student here — but because of how it prepares students to be consequential and to make a difference in the world.
So let’s start with people. What is it about the people of Brown? How is it that the constellations of people and ideas at Brown so often push boundaries?
Throughout its history, Brown has attracted faculty and students drawn to its core values of openness, collaboration, and fierce intellectual independence. It was Brown’s fourth president, Francis Wayland who insisted that — and I paraphrase — students should be able to "study what they choose, all that they choose, and nothing but what they choose."
On the strength of this iconoclastic foundation, Brown continued to evolve with the times and reset itself for excellence and leadership. In 1969 — and the alumni in the audience know this well — Brown outdid itself on this score by creating the Open Curriculum, an investment in the notion that people learn withpurpose and with joy by having the freedom to put ideas together in deliberate and interesting ways of their own making.
So just think about this. Think about the academic energy this set in motion. Think about the open and intense academic climate this established. Think about the attraction this climate had for teacher-scholars with diverse worldviews who expect to push the boundaries of knowledge, and who want to collaborate with bright, ambitious students.
Brown has the vibe of a place where Thomas Edison might have thrived, when he said, “Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something!”
This is music to the ears of Brown’s faculty — people like Professor of Materials Engineering Nitin Padture, who secured a $4 million National Science Foundation grant to manufacture the next generation of solar cells.
His work on this piece of the renewable energy puzzle builds on the research of graduate student Yuanyuan Zhou. Yuanyuan discovered that per-ov-skite crystals — unlike the silicon used in today’s solar panels — can be produced at room temperature, simplifying the manufacturing process and reducing costs.
This is but one example of what I see at Brown every day. Intellectually curious minds, working together, expanding the realm of the possible. It’s a beautiful thing. And it impacts the lives of people beyond Brown.
Now, I could easily summon any number of testimonials affirming how powerful the Open Curriculum is. But I want to note just one, from a student in Brown's Class of 2016. Aida Alazar is a young woman from the Bronx whose family is from Eritrea and whom Brown was lucky to attract with a commitment of financial aid. She is majoring in neuroscience and wants to heal the world someday, as a health practitioner. Happily for us, Aida will remain at Brown as a medical student after she graduates in the spring. [This element of the prepared remarks was revised post-delivery to address an incorrect aspect of Ms. Alazar's personal story.]
Reflecting on Brown’s unique approach to learning, Aida said: “At Brown, you cultivate your own education. You think for yourself. You have to be your own person.”
This is Brown — a spirited community with its sights set on the betterment of humankind. We want to keep it this way. We want to keep attracting the teacher-scholars who see around corners, and the students who see the creases. We want to keep harnessing the full potential and unlimited opportunities of the Open Curriculum.
To do that, Brown will invest further in endowed faculty chairs that will recruit and retain a talented, diverse faculty. And we will bolster undergraduate scholarships for lower income, middle income and international students, as well as graduate and medical school fellowship support. This support will attract the kind of intelligent and independent people who will thrive in Brown’s open environment.
Pushing boundaries drives academic excellence. Moving forward, it will continue to be the extraordinarypeople of Brown who lead us there.
So let’s turn to programs. What is it about Brown’s academic programs that elicits the collaboration that is so valued here? And why is collaboration so important?
I would suggest that the global challenges of our time demand collaboration. They are challenges that fill the news cycle, vex conventional wisdom, and thwart human aspiration.
Take your pick: decimated species and degraded habitats across the planet; the chasm of inequity that separates the one percent from the millions living on a dollar a day; vanishing art forms and traditional cultures; and the uncharted terrain of managing big data for social good, to name just a few.
I believe these challenges — and so many others — will be most powerfully addressed through collaborative education and research that bring together students and faculty across disciplines. And nobody does collaboration better than Brown.
So Brown’s rigorous and innovative academic programs — existing and planned — will do more of what Brown has done for every generation: emphasize collaboration in preparing students to innovate, push the boundaries of knowledge, and evolve into deep thinkers and doers.
Students may travel around the world through their work with the Climate and Development Lab at the new Intstitute at Brown for Environment and Society. Or, through our new arts initiative, they they can travel abroad to learn how the arts can be used to understand history and culture; communicate knowledge; and spark social change.
As a whole, the programs and others enable the intellectual work of our students to come alive and, potentially, contribute ideas and solutions that honor tomorrow’s promise of a better world.
Earlier this year, I had a group of undergraduates in my office for coffee and cookies. All of them are participants in the Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award program — UTRAs, we affectionately call them. One of the students was Chibuikem Nwizu, Class of 2017.
Chibuikem is an applied mathematics and biology concentrator who is working closely with faculty on research to develop a novel drug deployment strategy to control drug-resistant strains of malaria. At the moment, he is sorting out how to get to Thailand, to learn more about putting his ideas into practice for his thesis.
His work aligns perfectly with another collaborative education and research we are building at Brown– “Deciphering Disease” and “Improving Population Health.” It is aimed directly at a global challenge and embodies the cross-disciplinary approach that defines Brown.
As these and other academic programs take root, I believe Brown will cement and grow its reputation as a place where the novel is routine.
- Brown will be the place that continues to bring neurosurgeons and engineers together to improve the lives of people with neurological disorders;
- the place where economists, public health experts, and anthropologists at the Watson Institute tackle development problems;
- and the place where technology design, art, and literature combine to generate fresh cultural narratives.
Beyond our exceptional collaborative education and research opportunities, Brown students are also supported in other important ways.
We are, for example, developing a new Learning Commons at Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning that will help students hone strong writing, reading, data analysis, problem solving, and communication skills.
A new initiative in entrepreneurship is in the works as well, aimed at connecting students to local and global communities around entrepreneurial theory and skill development. And further investments are planned for BrownConnect, a program that links students and alumni through mentoring and internship opportunities. We launched BrownConnect last November, and I do hope that your students will benefit from this or any of these programs.
Knowledge in and of itself is well and good. But knowledge arrayed and targeted to impact the world is the new standard of academic excellence. And Brown’s academic programs are designed to meet that standard.
Last, let’s talk about our campus community. Why does the community of Brown continue to inspire us?
The short answer is because it is perpetually open to changing — and there is that word again, ‘open’ — in ways that nourish our vision — progressive, humanist, tolerant.
This is reflected in a beautiful campus that builds on Brown’s history, but is also always evolving. But it is also reflected in more fundamental ways in the people who make up the Brown community.
Earlier this year, I read a beautiful letter-to-the-editor published in the Brown Alumni Magazine. It was written by Larry Kramer, Class of 1980, former Dean of Stanford Law School and currently president of the Hewlett Foundation in California.
Larry described his visit to campus on the occasion of his 35th Class Reunion, offering an observation on the Brown University Class of 2015. As he watched the graduates march through the Van Wickle Gates down College Hill, he found himself comparing the scene to what he witnessed at graduation processions from earlier reunion visits — 10, 20 and 30 years ago.
He wrote that he wasn’t so much struck by the visibly different composition of the Class of 2015 — with its large numbers of students of color — indeed, many more than there were in those previous classes. Rather, he was struck by the changing comportment of graduating classes, beginning with the Class of 2005. This was the first he observed in which people from these different groups began marching together, rather than walking separately in their own tightly isolated communities.
Just last May, here is what Larry witnessed — and I quote:
“Finally came the graduating class of 2015, a magnificent kaleidoscope of people from all different backgrounds—now nearly a majority minority class, mixed and jumbled together, seemingly without regard for race or ethnic background. Many of the graduates openly celebrated their sexual diversity too, proud and unashamed in a way that, once again, stood in sharp contrast to my own class, in which scarcely anyone was yet willing to be openly gay or lesbian. The spectacle was beautiful, and intensely moving.”
Now, Larry’s observation goes to a point I made at the outset of my talk this evening: The evolution of institutions of higher learning like Brown carries on with the times. And it is driven by new investments in the things that make them stronger, and safeguard the values that made them distinct in the first place.
The community of Brown, then, is a place that inspires us, because there seems to be no limit to how wide it will open its mind and its heart. It inspires us, because it stands for inclusion, diversity, and breaking down barriers to hope. It inspires us because it opens space for all.
And here, I can offer one final story — that of Alejandro Claudio, Class of 2018. Alejandro was born in the Dominican Republic and was raised in the West End of Providence. And he is one of a growing number of “first generation” students here at Brown — students who are the first in their families to attend college.
A growing body of research indicates that first-generation students wrestle with a number of issues — their identities, stigma, the “breakaway” guilt of being the first in their families, acclimating to college, and others, all while trying to transcend often difficult socioeconomic backgrounds.
Alejandro is pursuing an independent concentration in political science, economics, and philosophy. He is active in the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, and, lucky for me, he participates in the Presidential Host program, welcoming and greeting University leaders, alumni, and special guests at lectures, receptions, and private dinners.
I am proud of the efforts Brown has undertaken to support Alejandro and other first-gen students. Their activism and leadership has put Brown on the national stage in raising awareness of the challenges they face, as well as the remarkable assets they bring to our community. And we are committed to developing campus resources to help them truly thrive.
This is the community of Brown, evolving yet again, opening doors and changing its culture so that everyone can have that transformative experience, and carve new paths in life after Brown.
This is not to say that all is perfect. Events across the nation as well as on college campuses during the last year tell us otherwise — that racial and socioeconomic inequalities persist. College campuses will, I am certain, lead the way in driving positive change.
As Larry Kramer concluded in his letter, it was “…impossible to see the pageant of the class of 2015 without realizing how much progress has been made, how different and how much better our society has become, and how much hope we really ought to have for its future.”
It is my hope that when current students, long after they have graduated, gather for Reunion and watch the Class of 2030 stroll down College Hill, Brown’s commitment to inclusion and diversity will be evident once again.
To close, I will say that as parents, we send our children to college trusting that when they graduate, some permutation of success, stability, income, and character will be apparent. Of course, we’re never quite sure how that is going to play out — because every student is different and will have an experience that is distinctly their own, or, in this case, distinctly Brown.
Yet someday, our graduates will see in their work the power that comes from pushing boundaries and taking risks — perhaps in the same way that Edwidge Danticat, the marvelous Haitian writer and graduate of Brown’s creative writing program, saw the power in hers.
Edwidge said of her craft — I quote: “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously ... Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”
This is a way of saying that today’s Brown is — and tomorrow’s Brown will be — a place that unleashes its graduates on the world.
So, what I would encourage you to trust is the transformative power of higher education. This is what Brown aims to unlock.
It flows from how our students interact with knowledge, ideas and the people who bear them.
And it derives from moments when insight courses through their minds, the proverbial “light bulb” is switched on, and they think: “This is what inspires me. This is what I want to explore. This is what I love.”
Thank you all so much for your gracious attention, and have a wonderful Family and Alumni Weekend!