Members of the Brown community – faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students – it is my great pleasure, as President of Brown University, to declare the two hundred and fifty-fifth academic year OPEN!

I want to welcome the members of the entering classes of the Medical School, Graduate School, and the College. Among them are:

  • 144 dedicated medical students
  • 826 talented master’s and doctoral students
  • 10 brilliant Resumed Undergraduate Education scholars—students who have gained life experience after high school before coming to Brown
  • 56 very perceptive transfer students

And of course, 1,657 exceptional first-year students, the core of the Brown Class of 2022!

Although this is my 7th Convocation as Brown’s president, the excitement of the first day of school never fades. Seeing all of you here on this beautiful College Green fuels my sense of optimism and boundless possibility that always accompanies the start of classes.

You come from every corner of the world. You represent nearly every socioeconomic group, political persuasion, religious affiliation, and cultural background. I want to extend a special welcome to those of you who are the first in your families to attend college. Starting at Brown must have particularly special meaning for you and your families.

More generally, each and every one of you has a unique personal story and a distinctive set of talents that you bring to College Hill. It’s the blend of these stories and talents that creates the magic that happens on this campus.

Our newest students and faculty members are joining a very special community. Our mission statement refers to Brown as a “partnership of students and teachers in a unified community.”

In the short time I have with you this afternoon, I’d like to consider these words and address one simple question: in what sense are we, as members of the Brown community, unified

This question is especially relevant now, not only because it gets at Brown’s essential character; but because I raise it at a time when this country — and many other countries around the world — seem anything but unified.  

We live in an era when divisive political rhetoric exposes deep rifts, and prompts fundamental questions about the kind of society we want to be.

  • Debates over immigration center on who has the right to live, work and be educated in this country.
  • Debates about environmental policy force us to consider how we should weigh profits today against future costs to human health and wellbeing.
  • Challenges to the use of race as one of many factors in college admissions are opening discussions on the role of higher education in promoting a just society—and demanding that we explore differences in our visions of what “justice” looks like.

Now, I know these are difficult issues, and I doubt that we’re unified in our views on them. Nor should we expect to be.

But if we don’t share the same views, then what does it mean to be a unified academic community at a time like this, a time of division and polarization?

To me, it comes down to standing for shared values.

Even as all of us embody a broad range of perspectives and worldviews, there is a core set of values that animate Brown University. 

  • The first is a dedication to seeking truth.
  • The second is a belief that advancing knowledge and understanding is the path to a better world.
  • And the third is a commitment to respecting human dignity.

Seeking truth. Knowledge in the service of society. Respect for human dignity. These are values that drive our actions each and every day; values that unify us.

What does it look like for Brown to live by these values? Let me offer a few examples.

First, we demonstrate our values in the way we respond to the assault on science, perhaps most salient in the questioning of climate change, its existence and its consequences.

As a university community, we generate knowledge by subjecting hypotheses to close empirical scrutiny. We seek truth through the painstaking work of observing, testing, validating, and replicating.

This approach drives the vital work we do at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society—IBES, for short—where scholars and students rigorously examine how human activity is changing the face of the planet.

Consider Professor Amanda Lynch, the founding director of IBES, who is on the front lines of seeking truth about climate change. Her scientific work focuses on the stability of Arctic ice sheets, an important factor in sea-level rise.

But she takes this scientific knowledge one step further, by investigating what retreating sea ice means to vulnerable Arctic herding and fishing populations. And this knowledge informs policies that serve a locally-defined ‘common good’ and offer the best chance for forging resilience and supporting the dignity of indigenous peoples.

Some years ago, Brown Professor Kenneth Miller noted that “…science is not a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a search for truth that illuminates every aspect of the human condition.” It is also the kind of approach that unifies us.

A second example: Our values were on display recently, when Brown journalism professor Tracy Breton, working with a team of Brown students, published a series of nine articles in the Providence Journal on elder abuse in Rhode Island. The final article, on how the elderly are often prey for financial exploitation scams over the internet, appeared in yesterday’s issue.

The pieces were written over the course of a year, reflecting detailed, careful, data-driven research into the lived experience of elderly residents in the state. And the portrait they paint -- sensitively derived and powerful -- is one of an elder care system rife with neglect, disregard, and violence.

This extraordinary Brown-inflected series is investigative journalism at its best. And, it comes at a timely moment in the fourth estate: when public trust in journalistic principles is being routinely undermined.

It shines a light on truth; it reveals knowledge that will hopefully lead to reform; and it calls out a shameful lack of respect for human dignity. It is the opposite of ‘fake news.’ 

And finally, we see Brown’s values in the power of memory and history to distill eternal truths – in particular, about the legacy of slavery, the struggle for civil rights, and the unfinished business of securing racial equality in America.

At a Black Alumni Reunion being held at Brown later this month, we’ll remember a moment in 1968 -- the Black Student Walkout -- that transformed Brown. This moment set in motion five decades of work by faculty, staff and students to make this University a more inclusive, welcoming place for all.

In part, that moment paved the way for the work of my predecessor, President Ruth Simmons. Under her leadership, Brown was one of the first institutions of higher education to examine its role in the slave trade, appointing a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.

The Committee’s report is a shining example of insightful historical research—I encourage all of you to read it. Among other things, the Committee recommended the creation of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which is one of the jewels of education and research at Brown. 

People were deeply affected by the findings in the report. For some, they were made whole. For others, there was a sort of closure. And for many, there was a sense that Brown’s acknowledgement allowed all of us to unite to resume a timeless quest for dignity.

This was especially true for Rowan Ricardo Phillips, who received his PhD from Brown in 2003. In the pages of the Committee’s report, he discovered that among the survivors of a horrific journey undertaken by the Brown brothers’ slave ship, the Sally, in 1764 -- Brown’s founding year – were… his ancestors, stolen from Africa and sold into slavery on Antigua.

Reflecting on the discovery of how complex his relationship to this University truly was, a place where he thrived, Rowan wrote something powerful and beautiful: “…the ties that bind us have proved to be strong even in their most broken places.”

Pursuit of truth; belief in the transformative power of knowledge; respect for the dignity of everyone. These are the values that unify all of us at Brown—the faculty, staff, medical students, graduate students, and undergraduates—including the great Class of 2022! 

These are the values that turn differences into opportunities;

That turn the unknown into adventure;

And that turn education into true learning.

They transform college into Brown – the lively experiment envisioned by our Charter in 1764.

And today, because of you, I remain relentlessly optimistic about the future.

With that, it is my great pleasure to introduce today’s keynote speaker.

When I had the opportunity, several years ago, to select the Provost of Brown University, my priority was to appoint a strong, inspiring faculty leader who could curate Brown’s academic programs in research and teaching at the highest standards of excellence.

Today, I consider the choice of Richard Locke to be among the best decisions I have made as president of Brown.

He is an internationally respected scholar and authority on international labor standards, worker rights, comparative political economy, and corporate responsibility.

Provost Locke has made influential contributions to these fields, and his teaching of international political economy has garnered several awards and citations.

In my experience working with Rick, what sets him apart – beyond his keen intellect, his integrity, and his skills as a consensus-builder – is his exceptional commitment to ensuring that higher education thought leadership informs the campus and public policy discussions of the day.

Best of all, he has been a true and trusted partner in our work, guiding this beloved university to new levels of excellence and preparing the leaders and innovators of the future. 

Please join me in welcoming Provost Richard Locke.