Members of the Brown community – faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students – it is my very great pleasure, as President of Brown University, to declare the two hundred and fifty-fourth academic year OPEN!
I want to extend a special welcome to the members of the entering classes of the graduate school, medical school and the College. Among them are:
- 144 dedicated medical school students
- 837 exceptionally talented master’s and doctoral students
- 9 brilliant Resumed Undergraduate Education scholars—students who have gained life experience before coming to Brown
- 67 very wise and perceptive transfer students
And of course, 1,643 exceptional first-year students, the core of the Brown Class of 2021!
You have come from every corner of the world, and represent nearly every socioeconomic background, political persuasion, religious affiliation, and cultural background. And I am quite confident that each of you thinks about the world differently, in your own distinctive way.
Now, not only is this immensely exciting to all of us here at Brown who will serve as your guides as you acquire new knowledge. It is the perfect point of departure from which to talk about the power of knowledge.
Now, it’s an understatement to say that you have arrived on College Hill at an “interesting” time in this country. We are bombarded almost daily with issues that are emotionally charged, that are politically divisive, and that are technically complex.
And we’ve seen tensions and divisions simmer—and sometimes boil over— around fundamental issues of identity, human rights, and free speech; around practical but nonetheless very important issues such as climate change, health care, and walls to keep people in and out; and around academic issues like the value of scientific inquiry, the value of the humanities, and even the value of a college education.
Today was no exception. And I want to say this clearly -- make no mistake: Brown will support our DACA and undocumented students!
Now, in the best circumstances, differences are addressed through frank, respectful, intelligent dialogue and, at times, peaceful protest—as we saw here today just outside the gates. This is what freedom of expression in America is all about. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way.
Just think about what happened in Charlottesville last month. The violent expressions of white supremacy and neo-Nazism were seriously disturbing. It seems almost unnecessary to say that they were contrary to Brown values—because, frankly, they are contrary to human decency.
When we witness things like Charlottesville, it’s human nature, it’s natural to react immediately and emotionally, from the heart. And, to be honest, when I saw images of torch-wielding white nationalists threatening University of Virginia students, I was horrified, I was angry and . . . I felt very protective. I kept thinking about how this community would feel and react if a similar situation had played out right here, on our Main Green.
But we have to be more than reactive. What makes Brown special, and always has, is that this community’s history and tradition are to approach—and proactively confront—complex and difficult issues with knowledge and understanding. We apply our learning to take intelligent action.
When we drive forward to change the world, we take a higher road and have a well-planned route.
So, as personally upset as I was by Charlottesville, I decided that if I was to mobilize Brown’s community to do something meaningful in response, I couldn’t just be outraged. I needed to commit to learn more about the complicated history of white nationalism in the United States —how it came to be, why it has persisted, and how we can most effectively counter it. I needed to know more, and I thought the same must be true for members of the Brown community.
I reached out to members of Brown’s faculty who understand the issues, and we decided that a first step would be to hold a teach-in—and this will be tomorrow night at 5 PM in Salomon Center—to help expand our collective knowledge of the issues that we have to confront head-on.
The power of knowledge resides in how it helps us make distinctions, understand contexts, and tackle complexity. This in turn lets us develop informed convictions, and on the basis of those convictions, take principled action.
And that’s the reason why each of you is here, whether undergraduate, graduate or medical student—to gain the knowledge and understanding you need to advance and repair the world.
This brings me to an important point, which is that the full power of knowledge is realized only if you look beyond yourselves. Even the most singular, self-reliant, driven individuals are successful only if they collaborate with, understand and appreciate others.
Of course, much of the work you do in a university is solitary—studying in libraries, writing papers, mastering problems sets, and preparing for exams – many, many exams. This is, to a large extent, how you build the tools, the skills, and the insights that you’ll need when you engage with the world.
Not to denigrate that learning—in fact, it’s a good part of what we—your faculty and staff—are so proud to be able to offer you. But that solitary process is only part of becoming an effective citizen. It’s only part of living a life of usefulness and reputation, as Brown’s charter encourages all of you to do.
We want to teach you not just how to acquire knowledge, but also how to use it to bring people together and create solutions. In your time at Brown, I hope you will confront, encounter, and seek out people whose ideas challenge the comfortable framework each of us constructs to deal with the world on a daily basis. And you will, I also hope, confront, encounter and seek out problems and issues that you can’t solve or remedy by yourself.
This is a good thing. Your time at Brown will be enriched when you collaborate with colleagues, both faculty and other students, whose knowledge, skills and life experiences complement your own.
Think about it. The major challenges of the world—whether it’s climate change, cybersecurity, human displacement, inequality—they demand the concerted efforts of people from a wide range of areas of inquiry, who bring different perspectives and different bodies of knowledge to bear on those problems.
We need engineers who can work with artists; economists who can work with philosophers; and archaeologists who can work with policy makers.
The Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, just to take one example, was created by engaging climate modelers, geoscientists, anthropologists, biologists, economists, and historians to examine the contexts and consequences of climate change, together.
Now, working side by side with other brilliant collaborators is actually only one part of looking beyond yourself. You’ll also need to listen to and empathize with people who are very different from you— whose experiences, values, and worldviews are not the same as yours. This may be even harder to master than the material in your classes.
In the contentious, polarized world in which we find ourselves, the value of listening has never been higher. As the intensity has ratcheted up and the stakes have gotten higher, I have been heartened to see members of the Brown community choose serious and substantive discussion—and sometimes heated debate—over inflammatory rhetoric.
I hope all of you will follow this path. It is my experience that when people know they have been heard, respected and understood, they are more likely to find common ground and to accept the possibility that just maybe, someone else has something to teach them.
This is well demonstrated by an issue that we have right now at Brown today —it is an issue that, I hope, highlights the value of listening and engaging in a respectful manner, and making decisions based on a thorough knowledge of the issues. Many of you will have heard that a piece of land given to Brown more than 50 years ago was, in the 1600s, home to the Pokanoket tribe.
This land has great spiritual and cultural significance to Native and Indigenous tribes throughout the region, in part because a leader of the Pokanoket—Metacom, otherwise known as King Phillip—was killed on this land during a devastating war with the colonists in 1676.
I would never endeavor to speak for the modern-day Pokanoket who would like to steward this land going forward – that is for them to do. However, I can say that through a thoughtful process of talking and listening, and more talking and more listening. I am optimistic we are close to a resolution that will recognize the historical and cultural significance of this land to the Native and Indigenous peoples of the region.
Brown is committed to an inclusive solution that respects the cultural histories of multiple tribes, and this is part of our broader dedication to listening and understanding. This is a core aspect of what we value at Brown, and I hope it will inform your path during your years here.
With that, it is my great pleasure to introduce today’s keynote speaker.
Like many of the Nigerian traditional rulers he has likely come across in his research, Daniel Jordan Smith is a man of many titles: Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence, Director of the Africa Initiative at the Watson Institute, Professor of Anthropology, and Chair of the Department of Anthropology here at Brown.
But more important, Dan is an inspiring educator and a gifted researcher whose wide-ranging scholarship on corruption and the HIV epidemic in Nigeria has shed light on the intersection of governance, health policy, demographics, and development in sub-Saharan Africa.
In his Margaret Mead Award-winning book, “A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Discontent in Nigeria,” Dan ventures to explain vigilantism, ethnic nationalism, and inequality in Nigerian society, giving us an extraordinary window into that country’s political culture—and, perhaps, a pathway to strengthening its relations with other nations.
His work falls squarely in the vein of building on knowledge and understanding in the service of the greater good. And this will, I believe, inspire his call to you today to change the world.
Please join me in welcoming Professor Dan Smith.