Thank you so much, Molly! Good evening, and welcome to Family Weekend!
You know, Family Weekend is just getting started and it is wonderful to see Brown students reuniting with their families! Your presence here – and many of you have traveled long distances to College Hill – is a lovely reminder that Brown is, and will always be, a family affair. Thank you for sharing your time with us this weekend.
I know you want to spend time with your students, but I hope you will also have a chance to explore the enticing slate of programs and events on offer for you to enjoy over the next couple of days – everything from a musical “keynote” performance by John Pizarelli and Jessica Molaskey right after my talk, to a conversation on the upcoming American elections, to a peek at the possibility of interstellar life. These are the kinds of experiences we offer our students, each and every week.
And of course, there is football – Brown vs. Cornell over at the stadium tomorrow afternoon. Now, the weather gods have cursed us with classically fickle autumn-in-New England conditions, and it still isn’t clear what tomorrow will bring. But I know that our devoted, exuberant fans will be out in full force, no matter what!
All this is to say that as you spend much-needed quality time with your children, I hope our Family Weekend program gives you an authentic, real-time glimpse of life at Brown.
Table Setting: What is Brown About?
But before you begin taking it all in, I’d like to share with you the Brown that I have come to know – the Brown whose students and faculty dazzle me every single day; the Brown whose scholarship moves the chains on the complex challenges of our world; and the Brown whose spirited community inspires me, always.
You have already learned a lot about Brown from campus tours, drop-off weekend, and (I hope) occasional calls or texts to your students. It may, then, be a good time to step back and consider questions like: What is Brown about? Why is it special? And how is it that your children chose Brown, and we chose your children?
Like so many institutions, Brown’s character was shaped by moments in history, when the values it stands for were forged. And there are two moments that are especially important.
First, when Roger Williams was banished to Rhode Island in 1635 for supporting the rights of Indians and religious dissenters, the die was cast. He thought differently and dared to hold a contrarian worldview. In time, Rhode Island gained a reputation as a sanctuary for people who were brave enough to think for themselves and stand up for what they believed.
More than a century later, when Brown arose in this unconventional place, it did so as a welcome haven for forward-looking, open-minded thinkers from a wide range of backgrounds. And from that point forward, the University began to chart its own unique pathway to learning.
A second moment was when Henry Wriston, Brown’s 10th president, wrote and distributed to alumni a pamphlet entitled ‘The University College,’ a document that gave voice to a vital piece of Brown’s identity. The university-college married the intimacy and rigor of a traditional liberal arts education with the resources of a major teaching and research university. This idea became Brown’s calling card. And it drew generations of independent-minded students to Providence.
Within these historical moments lie the seeds of your child’s interest in Brown, and its distinct approach to education. As I see it, Brown is a place where open academic inquiry meets boundless opportunity. It is a place where your students will find a Brown difference.
I believe the Brown difference is driven by three virtues: a student-centered learning culture; a strong emphasis on collaboration; and a commitment to impact. I’d like to say a few words about each, in turn.
First, students at Brown are the center of a vibrant, innovative intellectual environment.
All of us who work here know that Brown students are unusually self-motivated in a way that I have never, ever seen anywhere. They are confident. They are inventive. And they don’t see boundaries. I have been here four years now, and I can honestly say that Brown students seem to have this rare spark – this combination of curiosity, creativity, and joy.
This sets a marvelous tone of possibility on campus that Brown encourages at every turn.
And so students do not come to Brown to be taught. They come here to learn. There is a difference. The former is passive. The latter is active. In so many innovative ways – from our Open Curriculum, to crafting independent studies, to combining concentrations in unique ways – Brown students are empowered to take control of their education.
Now, I know that Brown students study hard. But I also know that they study what they love. This matters deeply – because it stokes that spark, and affords students the freedom to cultivate their ability to imagine, innovate, and map their own intellectual journeys.
Brown’s approach sets it apart from other schools. In fact, a math professor who has taught at several universities, including one “up the road,” recently told me that teaching at Brown is more satisfying and interesting than any teaching he has ever done. When I asked him why, he said that “For the first time, I am teaching students who actually want to learn mathematics!”
Similarly, a leading administrator at a peer university with a strong core curriculum, is known to have said that he spends much of his time persuading faculty to teach courses they don’t want to teach to students who don’t want to learn the material. There is no joy in learning here. At Brown, we believe that learning should be a daring adventure, not a forced march.
If you walk over to the Faunce Arch just off the Main Green, you will find an Entity Relationship diagram on display, a data visualization showing how different academic departments relate to each other. It captures this distinctive quality at Brown – its insistence on collaboration across people and across areas of inquiry. You might ask, “Why at Brown and not elsewhere?”
Well, here is what it says on the diagram. “Many aspects of Brown – including our compact campus and Open Curriculum – help create networks of relationships across departments that interconnect our students and faculty in unexpected and unique ways. This leads to the collaboration that fuels the innovation, high-impact teaching, research and scholarship that take place at Brown and make a difference in society and the world.”
There it is: the university-college idea – that Brown is a liberal arts college integrated into a major research university. It means that Brown is a place where faculty-student collaboration is prized and encouraged through interdisciplinary scholarship, at all levels, in fields such as engineering, the humanities, and public and international affairs.
It means undergraduate students are, in every way, full partners with graduate students and faculty. Undergraduates can and do take graduate courses, work in research labs, collaborate with faculty on archival research and archaeological digs, and conduct independent research projects that lead to publishable works.
It means opportunities everywhere – in internships sponsored by alumni and parents through our BrownConnect platform, in our Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award program, in initiatives that bring together engineers and philosophers or biomedical researchers and artists, and in our many academic hubs and centers.
Every summer, students who receive Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards – UTRAs, we call them – present the results of their work at a splendid poster session in Sayles Hall. UTRAs have become so widespread that the poster session now runs over two days. And the range of their research is off-the-charts interesting – everything from the next generation of solar cells, to the toxicity of e-cigarettes, to the literary origins of Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric.
And it means undergraduate students can teach! As we all know, the best way to learn is to teach others. The Computer Science Undergraduate Teaching Assistant program is so integral to learning that Brown alumni who served as Undergraduate Teaching Assistants in Computer Science are endowing a $10 million fund to support the program. More generally, students serve as peer mentors and tutors across the College, helping their classmates while honing their own knowledge.
Let me note one other aspect of collaboration that we value at Brown. And that is how it affirms the importance of diversity. It is a point of considerable pride that Brown is an energetic, welcoming campus community of people with every conceivable background and life experience.
Together, this community fashions an unmatched university-college environment where people look at ideas from many different perspectives – a quality that unequivocally makes us stronger and sharpens the academic excellence we seek.
Whether it is advancing scientific knowledge, creating new products and new companies, or devising public policy, Brown has always recognized the value of collaboration among students and faculty from different backgrounds and areas of expertise.
Third, impact. To a person, Brown students are uncommonly driven by the idea that their work will have impact in the world, somehow, in some way.
When we think about preparing students to solve societal problems, your question might be “Why does Brown do this better than other places?” Well, remember what I said earlier about the students here. And now consider what the world needs at this moment: leaders – people who can work collaboratively across fields, who are imaginative, and who can innovate.
Imagine what it is like to believe that you can break new ground and advance knowledge that will make the world a better place. Imagine what it is like to know that your university stands for research and learning that can move the world forward.
This is what it is like here – all the time. This aspirational quality is something we treasure in the students who come to Brown. They seem innately wired to take on the most vexing societal challenges, locally and globally.
Today, this inclination toward impact shows up in many ways – in Brown’s Engaged Scholars program, in the hundreds of students who do service work in the schools and communities around Providence, and in the constructive activism on social issues that permeates campus life and is deeply informed by students’ academic experiences.
I have learned that Brown students are completely fearless when it comes to advocating for changes in University policies, starting new programs, and even building national organizations. They are self-starters who want to put their knowledge to work, as a group of them did in working with the administration to establish a center for First Generation students at Brown.
This spirit can be seen throughout the Brown alumni community. Take Jaykumar Menon from the Class of 1990, for example, who recently won an alumni award. An international human rights lawyer, scholar and social entrepreneur, Jaykumar has pioneered creative strategies – like crowdsourcing and innovation prizes – to promote novel development solutions aimed at providing the world’s poor with food, water and access to health care. His approach – inventive, collaborative, and aspirational – is vintage Brown.
Now, when Brown Professor Michael Kosterlitz was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics a few weeks ago, there was jubilation on College Hill for his historic achievement. It’s true, not all of us were quick to understand the details of his research on the topological properties of matter. But we did understand that Professor Kosterlitz had, literally, expanded the boundaries of knowledge.
And that’s just the start of it. It very well could be any of your children who pick up a strand of this groundbreaking research in the years ahead, wrestle with it, build an interdisciplinary team of engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs, and pioneer a new highly conductive material that powers the quantum computing of the future.
You see, although Brown was built on a hill overlooking the city of Providence, the world around it was always very much in view. And so preparing people who are capable of navigating it, opening pathways to improve it, and having profound impact on the greater good – well, Brown is really, really good at this.
Closing Story: The Brown Difference
So, this is all to say that Brown is different. It is special. I’ve been around academia all my life, and there is simply no other place like Brown.
I need only recall a student who graduated last spring. This young woman won a Royce Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship, led a student organization for women in the sciences, and was fiercely recruited by two top PhD programs in cancer epidemiology – all while working 20 hours a week selling sneakers at a shop on Thayer Street. And, she came to Brown as a First Gen – the first in her extended family to go to college.
What she found at Brown is what your children find at Brown: a place of open academic inquiry and unlimited opportunity. And a place where her intellectual motivation, collaborative spirit, and desire to impact the world all came together.
To close, 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." I think we have, for a very long time, honored this idea. We don’t confine students with boundaries; we present them with opportunities.
Brown thrives, knowing that with students like ours, this is the best thing we can do. It doesn’t mean that students won’t need guidance. But they certainly don’t need their intellectual and creative aspirations to be restricted. Learning is, after all, a daring adventure.
The Brown difference will show up for your children while they are here on College Hill. You will marvel at who they become, where they go, and what they accomplish. And you will marvel at how they flourish, with this Brown difference at their backs.
So I want to thank you and your children for entrusting Brown with their college experience. I am confident that you will come to believe in Brown, as I do – because of how it prepares students to lead lives of consequence. And again, welcome to the family!
Thank you so much for your kind attention, and for being here this evening. I look forward to seeing you on campus during the weekend!
I am happy to take your questions.