PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Even before College Hill’s newest undergraduates officially began their Brown academic journeys at the University’s 258th Opening Convocation on Monday, Sept. 6, they’d already critically examined, discussed and debated the school’s historical ties to slavery.
For the 2021 First Readings program, they read the pioneering “Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice” — a document that Convocation keynote speaker Noliwe Rooks, chair and professor of Africana studies, read also as a new arrival to the Brown faculty this year.
“It says something special about Brown University that it first offers us welcome and then, almost in its next institutional breath, asks those of us who are new to the place to read a document named Slavery and Justice, saying we should engage it as one of our first acts of shared learning and community building,” Rooks said.
Under sunny, late-summer skies on Brown’s College Green, Opening Convocation offered another opportunity for shared learning and community building, much of which centered on the lessons conveyed by that influential document. Rooks joined President Christina H. Paxson and fellow Brown leaders in welcoming incoming undergraduate, graduate and medical students as well as those who studied remotely in 2020-21 and missed last year’s event.
With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, set to begin at sundown, the University hosted the ceremony on Labor Day for the first time in years, rather than on the Tuesday following.
In an address to students after they’d processed through the Van Wickle Gates, Paxson noted that the Brown’s 1764 charter established that students of all faiths should receive “like, fair, generous and equal treatment” — a principle that while far from universal upon inception (Black and Native students, women and atheists were among those unwelcome at the time), one that was nonetheless revolutionary for its time.
“We take it for granted today that Brown is open to people of all faiths,” she said. “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.”