Members of the Brown community – faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students – it is my great pleasure as President of Brown University to declare the 257th academic year open.

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

Among them are

  • 813 doctoral and master’s students
  • 144 medical students
  • 6 Resumed Undergraduate Education students—individuals who have gained valuable life experience between high school and their entrance to Brown
  • 62 very wise transfer students
  • And 1,769 first-year students, the core of the Brown University Class of 2024, who will join us in the spring.

By that time, I hope that all of Brown’s newest students will have the opportunity to walk through the Van Wickle Gates, and that by then it will be safe to have another welcoming convocation on the Main Green—perhaps a little colder, but in person.

Before I make a few remarks and introduce our keynote speaker, I want to thank the people at Brown who have worked tirelessly to prepare for this academic year. To name just a few:

  • Our facilities and dining services employees, who have had to reimagine what it means to feed, house and educate a community during a pandemic.
  • Our Campus Life, events and communications staff members, who have thrown themselves into safely bringing our students back to campus.
  • Our computing and information services employees working with our digital design team and the Sheridan Center staff, to help faculty prepare for hybrid teaching.
  • The many employees, plus students, who served on the numerous re-opening committees through the summer.
  • And of course, our faculty, who have worked tirelessly to not only to reinvent their own courses, but the entire Brown curriculum, to fit a hybrid three-semester model.

They deserve our gratitude for making it possible to open the academic year.

This is always a joyful day filled with excitement about the academic year ahead. But, as we all know, this year is unlike any other. The pandemic has upended life across our community, our state, our country and our world.

While we will no doubt face challenges as a Brown community this year, we must be mindful of the devastating impacts this virus has already had. So many of us have personally experienced the effects of the pandemic in our own lives. We may have family members and friends who have been sick, or who have lost jobs.

We’ve missed out on celebrating milestones with our loved ones, visiting relatives, and enjoying concerts, movies, parties, and all the other things that people do together to enjoy life and make meaningful connections.

Despite the challenges, our deep commitment to education and research is as strong as ever. Because, Brown’s mission, of “discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry” has never been more important.

We have seen in the past months that the need for knowledge and understanding is urgent. Consider just some of today’s complex challenges: racial injustice, socioeconomic inequality, climate change, political polarization, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Grappling with these challenges requires the concerted and thoughtful efforts of people from across disciplines— biologists and data scientists working alongside epidemiologists; artists and philosophers next to political scientists. We need analysts, advocates and activists.

Lessons from history

But, although all of the disciplines represented at Brown advance knowledge on issues of consequence, I would argue that it is especially important, right now, to not forget the lessons of history that are so relevant to the challenges we are dealing with today.

While the circumstances we are currently living in are extraordinary, it’s important to recognize that previous generations have faced similar challenges. But often, the lessons of the past are only partially remembered, and at times nearly forgotten, hampering our ability to learn from prior human experience.

Our histories are incomplete and imperfect. Over time, societies – often led by those in positions of power – selectively choose what we will honor and remember. When this happens, it falls to scholars to unearth important lessons that have been forgotten.

Three examples of this “selective forgetting” seem especially relevant today.

The first concerns the lessons from the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which resulted in about 50 million deaths worldwide. Until last spring, this pandemic, which bears some striking similarities to COVID-19, had largely vanished from public consciousness. We now know that those living at this time experienced school closures, event cancellations, and resistance to mask wearing directives, in addition to experiencing the trauma of illness and death among loved ones.

Even though Brown stayed open during that pandemic, very little about that period exists in Brown’s archives. In the Brown Daily Herald, there’s a mention of a campus lockdown and guards stationed at the gates. And, the University president advising students to dress warmly as a protective measure. But that’s about it.

In hindsight, it is clear that we could have been better prepared for today’s challenges if the influenza pandemic had not been all-but-forgotten.

In 2006, an epidemiologist named Stephen Morse, from Columbia University’s School of Public Health wrote a prescient article titled “Pandemic influenza: studying the lessons of history.” He noted other research that established that the cities that emphasized the same basic public health practices we are following today—social distancing, mask wearing, isolating the sick, and banning large gatherings—had fewer deaths. The last sentence in his article, written 16 years ago, says that “The lessons of 1918, if well heeded, might help us to avoid repeating the same history today.”

The irony, of course, is that this time we didn’t heed the lessons of history as quickly as we could have. It took the Centers for Disease Control three months from the first recorded case of coronavirus in the U.S. to reverse course and recommend mask-wearing, giving the virus that much more time to spread silently. 

A second example of imperfectly-remembered history concerns our celebration, this year, of the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. The 19th Amendment was indeed a victory that should be remembered and honored. But, as we celebrate, let’s not forget that the 19th amendment actually didn’t guarantee all women the right to vote.

Indeed, for many women, it meant that they had simply gained the right to be disqualified from voting for the same reasons that already applied to men: failure to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes; supposed immorality or insanity; felony convictions; and more. These “disqualifications” kept many women and men who were Black, Native American, recent immigrants, or just plain poor from accessing the voting booth.

It would take an extraordinary 45 more years from the time of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But even that didn’t settle it. Today, many people are still cut off from civic participation due to prior convictions. More generally, the issue of whether the Voting Rights Act needs to be updated and strengthened is hotly debated. So, as we celebrate the 19th Amendment and head into the fall election, let’s not forget that the fight for voting rights is still underway.

My third and final example is something that should be familiar to all Brown students and employees, and that is the University’s historic ties to the slave trade. This fall, all incoming first-year and transfer students will read the celebrated Report on Slavery and Justice, published in 2006, written by a committee of Brown University faculty, students and administrators. The report, carefully-researched and powerfully-written, documents the uncomfortable truth that slavery and the slave trade were pervasive throughout Rhode Island. The economy of our state was heavily dependent on slavery, and Brown University benefited from the slave trade. I encourage everyone to read this report if you haven’t already.

One of the recommendations from that report was to create a permanent memorial to recognize the ties that Brown and Rhode Island had to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If this had been a normal Convocation, all of the new students marching in through the Van Wickle gates would have observed, across the Quiet Green, the powerful memorial sculpture created by Martin Puryear. It appears as a ball and chain, only the top third of which emerges from the earth, capturing the idea that the legacy of slavery is a weight that is still partially buried. It reminds us that it is our responsibility to expose that history, look unflinchingly at its current terrible manifestations, and become part of a process of healing as we deepen our understanding and work together to effect change. This is the work of decades, not a single moment, but it is one that we as a University will bring renewed commitment to this year.   

Challenge to the Brown community

As members of this community, one of the most important things our students learn is to develop a foundation that allows them to live a life of meaning and purpose – through understanding and empathy. That means understanding and honoring the moment we are in and the challenges we are all facing right now.

I challenge you, wherever you are – as a student in your academic career, as a faculty or staff member in your professional career – to deliberately mark the trials of this academic year in your personal consciousness and to take steps to memorialize the adversity we’re facing.

I also challenge you to act. Because, how we act as a community now will define how we are remembered in the future.

Remember the history of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic—and commit to wearing a mask and making sacrifices in your social lives. (That means—don’t party!)

Remember the continuing fight for voting rights—and either mail-in your ballot or go to the polls this fall.

Remember the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade—and do your part to dismantle anti-Black racism at Brown and in this nation. 

And let’s make sure it’s a year that’s never forgotten.

Introduce Andre Willis

Now, it is my privilege to introduce Professor Andre C. Willis, Associate Professor of Religious Studies. Professor Willis has a PhD from Harvard, and came to Brown in 2012 from Yale Divinity School.

His scholarship is broad. He has written extensively on 18th century philosopher David Hume, and he also writes and teaches on topics like Christianity and economic inequality, and African-American theology.

Professor Willis exemplifies the very best of what Brown offers. He is beloved by his students. To give but one example of the impact he has, one student said “Professor Willis is the single most responsive, accommodating, and compassionate professor I've had in four years at Brown. Never have I seen a professor demonstrate such commitment to his students as human beings first and students second, to intellectual and emotional honesty, and to a deeply self-reflexive pedagogy.” 

He is also a wonderful citizen of the University. Professor Mark Cladis, the department chair of the Religious Studies Department, wrote the following: The Department of Religious Studies is honored to have Professor Willis as a colleague and teacher-scholar. He brings his brilliant mind, capacious heart, and enlivening spirit to everything he does—and he does so much. He educates his colleagues and students alike about what it is to become better people, better citizens, to become more knowledgeable about such topics as racism and historical trauma. Andre helps us to become more human and more humane. 

I am especially grateful that Professor Willis has agreed to co-chair, with Vice President Shontay Delalue, Brown’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism, which will begin its work this fall.

Please join me in welcoming Professor Andre Willis, whose talk is titled “The New Normal”.