Opening Convocation: The Opportunity of a Lifetime

September 4, 2018

View video of address here

Good afternoon, and thank you, President Paxson, for that generous introduction, and for the opportunity to be here today.

Many thanks to my faculty and staff colleagues, and to all of the students for coming out today as we open the new academic year.

We are delighted to welcome our newest students…the Class of 2022, and graduate students, medical students, and RUE and transfer students.

It is a profound honor to be here today.

When I began college, 40 years ago, I was the first in my family to attend a four-year college. We didn’t refer to ourselves then as first-generation, though I still recall the mixed emotions that I felt.

I was so excited by all the new people I was meeting, the incredible courses I had enrolled in, the amazing facilities surrounding me; but I was also a worried that perhaps I might not have what it would take to succeed in college. Everything seemed so new and unfamiliar; everyone seemed so smart and polished and I simply did not have the roadmap -- the cultural capital -- to navigate this new world.

It was all a bit overwhelming at times. But with the help of some great professors and my new friends, I soon learned the rules of the game and threw myself into this new world of higher education.

Forty years ago, I would never have imagined that I would be blessed to teach at one of the world’s great universities and serve as Brown’s provost. But here I am. And here you are…about to embark on your own academic journey.

Today, I want to focus my brief remarks on how we can take full advantage of this incredible opportunity – an opportunity of a lifetime – to reaffirm our core values and strengthen the role of this university and higher education in general as agents of social mobility and positive social change.

Now, more than ever, our society needs universities like Brown to play this important role.

Let me begin by reflecting on Evicted, the book all incoming undergraduates read as part of their orientation program.

Evicted is a compelling study that documents the affordable housing crisis facing millions of people in this country today.

By weaving together the narratives of eight Milwaukee families with national statistics and local archival research, the author, Matthew Desmond, sheds light on this staggering social problem.

The lack of safe, clean, affordable and stable housing prevented the families we meet in the book to secure, let alone hold on to, stable employment; attend to basic health care needs; enroll in the same school on a regular basis; and to save what little money they had left after paying rent to purchase warm clothes, nutritious food, or even heat and electricity.

But even more than presenting us with these compelling family narratives, Desmond makes three important points:

  • First, he shows how problems we often treat as isolated and distinct – unemployment, homelessness, food insecurity, unequal access to good quality education and healthcare – are all connected; are all pieces of the same self-reinforcing system.
  • Second, through evidence and logic, the book challenges our conventional wisdom.
    The conventional wisdom holds that poverty leads to homelessness. Evicted, instead, shows that the lack of safe, clean, affordable and stable housing leads to poverty and many of its negative consequences.
  • Third, the way Desmond tells the story of these eight families shows that he feels genuine empathy for them, regardless of their race, class and personal habits. Through his research, we come to understand the experience of these families from their own perspectives.

This mix of empathy, systems thinking, and the use of facts and logic to overturn conventional wisdom and shed new light on pressing social problems is what I find so compelling about the book, and what I also find so exciting about Brown University.

Each of you is about to embark on a journey that will challenge you to learn new things, develop new skills, and re-think your prior assumptions (the conventional wisdom) about many, many different issues.

You will debate these issues with friends and colleagues and even with some of your professors who might hold completely different views from your own.

In the process—if you are open to both challenging conventional wisdom and to being challenged—you will sharpen your ideas and learn and grow in new and expansive ways.

This is what university life is all about.  And this type of inquiry and debate — free and open and critical and respectful and yes, even fun — is what Brown promotes each and every day, both in and outside of the classroom.

Using facts and logic to shed new light on pressing social problems and overturning prior assumptions – as Matthew Desmond did in Evicted – is what students and faculty at Brown do every day.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

For years, the conventional wisdom held that the Moon’s surface was completely dry. However, Brown planetary scientists Carle Pieters and later Shaua Li published research that showed that water actually exists on the Moon’s surface. This work has completely changed how we think about the geography of the Moon.

Let me give you another example. For years we have known that the US has higher infant mortality than other developed countries, and most people blame our healthcare system for this unfortunate fact. However, Brown Professor of Economics Emily Oster analyzed data from the US and Europe and found that infant survival rates during the first, medical intensive month of life are comparable across regions. What changes is when babies are brought home. This is when you see the divergent patterns of infant mortality, especially among low income families. This finding suggests the need to provide greater support young to families at home rather than experiment with various changes to our health care system.

My own work on labor justice in the global economy offers yet another example.

My research focuses on how to promote safe and fair working conditions for the millions of workers – laboring in factories and farms across the globe – who make the things you and I buy and consume every day: cellphones, laptops, soft drinks, food, clothing, running shoes, and other goods.

The “conventional wisdom” regarding  globalization and labor rights/working conditions holds that in today’s world where anything can be made anywhere, there is by necessity a so-called “race to the bottom” – that only by sweating labor — and by this I mean paying workers below a living wage, working them so many hours that they get sick, denying them their basic rights, and harassing them both at work and on their way to and from work — that only by pursuing these exploitative practices can developing countries compete in the global economy.

The “race to the bottom” argument simply assumes that the benefits we gain from our ability to purchase all sorts of goods at affordable prices comes at the expense of the basic rights and welfare of workers employed in these globally dispersed factories and farms.

However, my own research, which entailed collecting and analyzing thousands and thousands of factory inspection reports for companies like Nike, Apple, Coca Cola, and others—as well field work visiting more than 150 factories located in the 10 largest exporting countries in the global south, and conducting almost 1000 interviews with people working at/for these factories and companies—found that, in fact, the “race to the bottom” is not inevitable nor is it necessary.

A better way—which protects worker rights and pays them higher wages while also producing high quality goods at affordable prices—can and does already exist.

Achieving this requires both a different mindset about how best to operate a business, and training in new production/work systems for managers and workers. In other words, even in today’s globalized world, we can create a “race to the top.”

These examples are just a small sample of the meaningful and consequential research and teaching that take place at Brown today.

Under President Paxson’s leadership, Brown is guided by a strategic plan, Building on Distinction.

Our plan lays out an exciting vision for Brown – investments in new academic programs, buildings, and campus community. At its core are a number of academic areas that distinguish Brown – areas that are linked to some of the world’s great challenges:

  1. Improving population health
  2. Promoting environmental sustainability
  3. Discovering cures for debilitating diseases
  4. Promoting more just, peaceful and prosperous societies, among others

Other great universities also have programs focused on climate change, population health, brain and translational science, and economic development.

What makes Brown truly distinctive is how we pursue this work—that is by blending together intellectual rigor with interdisciplinary inquiry to advance knowledge and make a positive impact in the world. 

We understand that no single academic discipline holds a monopoly of knowledge to fully address these pressing global issues. But by bringing people from different backgrounds and skill sets and experiences and perspectives to work collaboratively across different disciplines, we can actually make progress on these problems and make a positive difference in the world.

This is what is happening every day on this campus, and why it is an especially exciting and inspiring time to be at Brown. There is an intellectual effervescence that one feels when you walk into a classroom or across campus and interact with fellow Brunonians.

This is why I urge that you take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity: Throw yourself into your studies AND your extracurricular activities. Question your assumptions and DO something to translate the privileges we all enjoy here at Brown to make the world a better place.

While I cannot over-emphasize the value and importance of the research, teaching and service taking place on our campus, it is also true that these are very trying times for higher education, and for universities like Brown.

We find ourselves in a period when the basic principles and values underlying higher education are under attack. Values like:

  • The importance of scientific research and facts to help us understand and mitigate great challenges like climate change;
  • The centrality of critical thinking and free inquiry as we come together to think through some of society’s most pressing issues; and
  • The fundamental importance of diversity and policies like affirmative action that help us create truly diverse communities.

Let me offer some evidence of where I see threats. 

There have always been science skeptics. Yet, a 2015 Pew Research Center Study on science and society found that science denial appears to be increasingly widespread and gaining traction.

  • For example, the survey revealed a 33-point gap between scientists and the general public over whether human activity impacts climate change.  It does.
  • The study also found that respondents did not believe that scientists were in agreement about climate change, when in fact, in general, they are.

In terms of overall views of the role, value and impact of higher education, there were two notable polls conducted in 2017 that brought into sharp focus that Americans’ view of higher education are increasingly polarized along partisan lines.

One of these was a Gallup poll that found:

“While a majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (56%) say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in colleges, only a third of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (33%) hold that same view.”

Conservative critics believe universities are too liberal and intolerant of more traditional views, and liberal critics believe that we are too expensive and elitist.

I’m not seeking to be political here – and I know that there are many things that universities need to do to address some of the issues raised in these polls. But these days, we are witnessing an outright attack on higher education and its core values.

This includes recent proposals to tax tuition scholarships and endowments, attacks on particular areas of research related to reproductive health and environmental sustainability, and efforts by both the US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice to roll back policies that allow us to include race as one of the many factors we consider in our admission decisions.

This would impact our ability to fulfill our very mission.

As I emphasized before, it is precisely by bringing together talented individuals from different national, racial, ethnic, gender, religious, political, and class backgrounds and identities that we are able to challenge and be challenged, and to continue to be agents of social mobility and positive social change.

I would also argue that because of the declining support for colleges and universities among the public at large, we have not been especially effective at pushing back on some of these policy proposals – or on others that affect us, such as efforts to ban travel to the United States from a small set of Muslim-majority nations, or in pressing for comprehensive immigration reform to protect the rights of our undocumented and DACA students.

We need to regain the confidence of the public and policy makers alike so that we can defend our core values and continue to serve as agents of social mobility and positive social change.

You all have a role in this process. Throw yourselves into your studies, question your assumptions and the conventional wisdom of others, and do something impactful with what you learn while you are here at Brown.

My story about being the first in my family to attend a four-year college – which clearly changed the trajectory of my life – it is also our collective story about taking advantage of the incredible opportunities offered to us at Brown to make a positive impact in the world. But it could also be a story of our future, the future of our society, if we are able to leverage all that higher education has to offer to address some of society’s most pressing challenges.

Yes–these are both exciting times and trying times. And thus, now more than ever, take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity, have fun in the process, and help make the world a better place.

Thank you, and welcome to Brown!