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-sixth academic year OPEN!
I want to welcome members of the entering classes of the Medical School, Graduate School, and the College. Among them are:
144 dedicated medical students – so dedicated, that they’ve been here already a month and are studying for their first exams, so welcome!
876 exceptionally 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
85 very wise and perceptive transfer students
And of course, 1,665 exceptional first-year students, the core of the Brown Class of 2023!
Now, I want to give shout-outs to two groups of students.
First, the 174 undergraduates who indicated on their applications that they are the first in their families to attend college! Welcome!
And second, the 619 international students – undergraduate, graduate and medical – who decided to pursue their education here in the United States, at Brown! We welcome you!
One of Brown’s greatest strengths is the diversity of talent that it draws from all over the country and the world. And please, take every opportunity you can to learn from the incredible range of experiences and perspectives of your classmates, and to share your own stories with them.
Now, this is always a wonderful day – celebratory, filled with excitement and anticipation about the academic year that is about to begin.
But even on a joyful occasion like this, we have to remember the world outside of Brown. And so, I ask that we pause for a moment of silence in recognition of the victims and families affected by gun violence in this country, most recently in Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, and just recently, Odessa, as well as in other episodes of violence around the globe. Please join me in a moment of silence.
[Moment of silence]
You know, often, when terrible things happen, we feel powerless to do anything to make the world better. But I think my single message to you today is that you don’t have to feel this way. And I say this because I know that your Brown experience will empower you to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.
Today, I want to make the case that learning how to make the world better is exactly why you are here.
And that your Brown education will give you exactly the right knowledge and experience you’ll need to be a powerful agent of change.
You will have so many opportunities to learn from and work with people—faculty, staff, and other students—who are dedicated to using their knowledge to make a difference. And you will find so many occasions to put what you learn to good use.
Let me begin by telling you about Megan Ranney. Megan is an emergency physician and a faculty member at the Warren Alpert Medical School here at Brown. Now, emergency department doctors like Megan are on the front lines of treating victims of gun violence, saving lives, day in and day out.
But Megan wants to do more. She wants to prevent gun violence. She views firearms injuries and deaths through the lens of public health – literally, as a public health crisis. Her research, which she often conducts together with Brown students, is informed by data on what approaches work. And which don’t – like, for example, the myth that mental illness is the primary cause of mass shootings.
In a recent op-ed, Megan and a co-author pointed out that, and I quote, “Mental illness is certainly a problem in this country. But hate is not a mental illness.”
Megan is a driving force within a growing network of health care professionals who are dedicated to preventing gun violence. And in part because their data-driven public health approach rises, at least a little bit, above the fray of partisan politics, they’re changing public opinion and they are impacting policy. They’re making a difference.
This is the kind of powerful work you that will find at Brown – work that you can contribute to, through classes, internships, independent research, extracurricular activities. Megan, and many others like her, will inspire you, inspire all of us to live lives of meaning and purpose.
My broader point is that knowledge does confer the power to make the world better.
And I could give so many examples based on what’s happening right here at Brown.
One example, the pioneering work at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society to help cities and regions of the world develop resilience to climate change and plan for a clean energy future.
The “Costs of War” project at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, with leadership from Professor of Anthropology Catherine Lutz, is bringing into very sharp focus the financial and human costs of global conflicts.
A collaboration between Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and Firelight Media. They’re working to produce a multi-part documentary about the Atlantic slave trade, to deepen our understanding of how its legacies continue to shape the modern world—even 400 years ago, just last month, after the first enslaved Africans arrived in North America.
I would also note the work of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, where Brown students are assessing how to help struggling K-12 school systems prepare children for lives of upward mobility – with the kind of practical knowledge that is desperately needed across the world, and right here in Providence
Or finally, I’d note the research in Dr. Jake Curtis’ lab to create a vaccine for malaria. This is a disease that kills over 1 million people per year, mostly children under the age of five.
It turns out that Jake, now a faculty member and director of Brown’s MD/PhD program -- he went to college at Brown, just like all of you. His passion for curing malaria was inspired by a summer internship after his junior year, when he went to Kenya to study coral reef ecology.
Now, you might wonder how he went from studying coral reef ecology to seeking a cure for malaria. Maybe you guessed it. He contracted cerebral malaria while he was in Kenya on that internship. But fortunately for the world, he recovered.
Now, my lesson here is that you don’t have to be stricken with a potentially-deadly disease to find your calling in life. Please don’t. We don’t want that to happen.
But you do have to approach your studies with rigor, intentionality, and a mind that’s open to seeing how the knowledge you acquire will empower you to make the world better.
Finally, I want to highlight two important, related points as you embark on your journey as Brown students.
One, the single most important virtue that you’ll cultivate at Brown are habits of mind that enable you to analyze, communicate and address complex issues with empathy, and nuance, and wisdom. And two, you can acquire these habits of mind by studying, well, pretty much anything.
Now, I’m an economist – a field considered by many, rightly or wrongly, to be a sure path to a good job. And we have so many outstanding students here at Brown who are learning about engineering, computer science, and medicine. And if you study these subjects, it will be obvious how the knowledge you’re acquiring can be applied to pressing real-world issues.
But for those of you who are drawn to subjects that may seem farther removed from the issues of the day – philosophy, or theater, or theoretical astrophysics – remind yourselves (and, possibly, your skeptical parents!) that you are developing the strongest possible foundation for a life of meaning and purpose.
The world’s problems can’t be addressed without people who think deeply about ethics; who understand the power of art to raise provocative questions and bring groups together; or who, by studying the universe, are able to see human problems with balance and perspective.
And I suspect this is, in part, why you chose Brown – to explore, to inquire, to discover precisely how you can make the world better. And I believe this will prove to be among the most profound choices you will ever make.
Now let me introduce our keynote speaker.
There is no one better than Dean of the College Rashid Zia to explain the power of the principles that drive Brown’s approach to education and scholarship.
Dean Zia knows Brown well, from multiple perspectives.
As a Brown undergraduate, he came to appreciate how the Open Curriculum put students at the center of their academic journeys and empowered them to “learn how to learn.”
Inspired by a faculty essay on the importance of taking courses outside of one’s comfort zone, he loved that he could study engineering and English at the same time. And so, he decided to concentrate in both.
As a Brown professor, he knows his students are there because they want to be; they want to be challenged; and they want to learn across disciplines.
And he gets how important mentoring is at Brown, particularly for first-year students, and he expresses gratitude for the support faculty, staff, and peers gave him while he was an undergraduate.
As Dean of the College, Rashid Zia sets the tone for academic excellence, ensuring that all Brown students are engaged, empowered and transformed by their education.
This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Open Curriculum, his thought leadership celebrates Brown’s collaborative, rigorous, student-centered academic culture.
His passion, lifelong passion, for Brown’s educational mission is among the many reasons we are lucky to have him here.
So please welcome our Dean of the College, Rashid Zia.