Members of the Brown community – faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students – it is my great pleasure as President of Brown University to declare the 258th academic year open!

I extend my warmest welcome to members of the entering classes of the Medical School, Graduate School and the College.

Among them are:

  • 1,058 talented doctoral and master’s students
  • 144 dedicated medical students
  • 10 brilliant Resumed Undergraduate Education students—individuals who have gained valuable life experience between high school and their entrance to Brown
  • 80 very wise transfer students
  • And, of course, exceptional 1,710 first-year students, the core of the Brown University Class of 2025!

I want to give a special shout-out to all of the students who studied from remote locations for all or part of last year. Welcome back! We missed you! I’m so glad that students who couldn’t march through the Van Wickle gates last year had the opportunity to do so today.

In a few days, students will begin classes with faculty members who have done heroic work over the past year, during an exceptionally difficult time, all the while focusing on providing the outstanding education for which Brown is known. Brown faculty are incredible. Please join me in recognizing them.

And I also want to express my gratitude for the amazing Brown employees—from Dining Services, Health Services, Residential Life, Facilities, laboratory personnel, and folks who work in administrative offices. Many of you worked on campus throughout the past 18 months. Others have recently returned or will return soon to campus after more than a year of remote work. You have done everything possible to keep Brown moving forward in the best way possible. Thank you.

*   *   *

My primary role today is to introduce our keynote speaker, Professor Noliwe Rooks. I am looking forward to hearing her reflections about the First Reading for this year—Brown’s Slavery and Justice Report—and why the history of Brown’s connections to the New England slave trade is as relevant today as when the report was written 15 years ago.

But before I introduce Dr. Rooks, I want to comment on another strand of Brown’s history which continues to shape the intellectual and human culture of this university.

It starts with Brown’s Charter, written in 1764. Charters are legal documents and, like many legal documents, much of it is dry and unremarkable. It establishes the roadmap for governance of what we now know as Brown University: how many fellows and trustees would make up the College’s governing body; how professors and presidents would be hired; and how tuition would be set; and so on.

But one part of the Charter is remarkable. I am thinking of the section simply titled “No Religious Tests.”

The following text appears in that section:

“And furthermore, it is hereby enacted and declared that into this liberal and catholic institution shall never be admitted any religious tests: But, on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience.”

It goes on to say that “youth of all religious denominations…shall receive a like, fair, generous, and equal treatment during their residence therein.”

We take it for granted today that Brown is open to people of all faiths. But, in 1764, the notion that an institution of higher education would not only accept students from all religions, but would also openly embrace the idea of liberty of conscience? That wasn’t normal. That was radical.

A side note on something that is especially relevant today, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year: In 1770, the Corporation (the name of the College’s governing body) was asked whether this religious openness applied to Jews. In response, the Corporation passed a resolution stating that “the Children of Jews may be admitted into this Institution and entirely enjoy the freedom of their own Religion, without any Constraint or Imposition whatever.” So, to all members of our Jewish community, let me say “Shana Tova”, or “Good Year”.

Now, at its inception, was Brown open to all? No. Black students, Native students, women, and atheists were not welcome. Students who couldn’t afford tuition didn’t have access. But, although Brown was far from perfect in numerous dimensions, that initial seed of an idea—that embrace of intellectual openness and diversity—has grown stronger over time and become a defining part of our institutional culture.

I’ve written and spoken about this piece of Brown history before, but let me explain why I think it is especially relevant today. And I speak directly to our students.

You are here at what is undeniably a contentious and polarized time. Recently—and not for the first time—the work we do at universities has been swept up into the culture wars. The media has been full of charges that universities engage in indoctrinating students into specific ways of thinking about social and political issues. If true, this would indeed be a serious concern.

But this is not Brown. Since our beginning, the radical idea of bringing people from different faiths to learn together has blossomed into a culture that celebrates open inquiry and the exploration of new ideas. We stand for learning, not indoctrination. It is core to who we are.

I can’t promise you that you won’t, at times, find it uncomfortable to question the status quo or express what may be a minority view. That takes courage even in the most welcoming of environments—even sitting around your own kitchen table. Part of your education is to develop the courage of your convictions.

At Brown, you will be helped by the fact that we place great value on kindness, humility, and respect for the dignity of all human beings. This is also core to who we are. This is how you should expect to be treated. This is how you should treat others.

Consider that the Charter says that students of all faiths should receive a “like, fair, generous and equal treatment.” Fairness and equality should be a given, but generosity of spirit is something more. It elevates all of us to a higher level.  It makes it possible for us to learn together in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

And when these two things—open inquiry and generosity of spirit—are united, they create an environment that powers learning and personal growth for all members of our community. That’s how we counter polarization and distrust. That’s how we advance knowledge and understanding, to the benefit of society.

This is a complicated time to be a university student – we are facing a lingering pandemic, a renewed reckoning with racism, climate change, cybercrime, and threats to democracy.

At Brown, you’ll will grapple with these issues, and many others, inside and outside of the classroom. Together, you’ll explore problems. You’ll find solutions. Your work will be fueled by being part of a diverse community that includes people from all over the country and the world, eager to learn from and teach each other.

It is such an exciting time to be in this place, in this community of scholars. I am confident that you will have amazing experiences at Brown, especially if you embrace the ideals of open inquiry and generosity that are central to Brown’s identity.

Introduce Noliwe Rooks

With that, it is my great pleasure to introduce today’s keynote speaker, our new Chair and Professor of Africana Studies, Noliwe Rooks. I am thrilled that Professor Rooks has joined us here at Brown. I’m grateful that she accepted my invitation to be keynote speaker so soon after arriving on campus.

Professor Rooks comes to us from Cornell University. She is a renowned scholar. Her work, which exemplifies the strength of collaborative research and scholarship, explores how race and gender impact and are impacted by popular culture, social history and political life.

She has worked extensively on issues including the cultural and racial implications of beauty, fashion, capitalism and more, and is the author of several books, including her most recent, “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.” In her current research she is exploring relationships between capitalism, land, urban food politics and cannabis legalization in the United States.

Professor Rooks has titled her address, “Finding Joy in the Journey: Memory Lane and The Battle to Remember.”

Please join me in welcoming Professor Noliwe Rooks.