Date September 6, 2021
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At its 258th Opening Convocation, Brown officially commences 2021-22 academic year

University President Christina H. Paxson and Professor of Africana Studies Noliwe Rooks looked to Brown’s history for lessons on how to center truth and advance knowledge amid a challenging global moment.

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.”

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

Christina H. Paxson University President
Christina Paxson

Paxson said that the embrace of intellectual openness and diversity rooted in the charter has become a defining part of Brown’s culture and an ideal particularly important at this moment in time.

“You are here at what is undeniably a contentious and polarized time…” Paxson said to the approximately 3,000 students beginning studies at Brown. “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.”

When the longstanding Brown values of open inquiry and generosity of spirit are united, Paxson said, they create an environment that powers learning and unlocks the keys to advancing knowledge, countering polarization and ultimately making a positive impact in the world.

“This is a complicated time to be a university student,” she said. “We are facing a pandemic that doesn’t seem to want to leave, a renewed and long-overdue reckoning with racism, climate change, cybercrime, threats to democracy…

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

Truth, memory and forgetting

For Noliwe Rooks, the invitation to address the University’s newest students came as she too begins her first semester as a Providence resident and a member of the Brown community.

“Your journey here will always be bound up with mine,” said Rooks, who comes to Brown following posts at Cornell and Princeton universities. “I understand the excitement and the dread, the sensation of starting a new adventure that can feel a bit like freefalling off the side of a cliff.”

A scholar who studies the history and present of structural racism in relation to culture, society and everyday life, Rooks writes frequently about how humans read, understand or make sense of others based on everything from skin color to clothes, hair and body size. She researches public education — “and how we in the United States learned how to not notice how racially and economically segregated it is,” she said — and how colleges and universities respond during times of racial upheaval.

In her Opening Convocation address, “Finding Joy in the Journey: Memory and the Battle to Remember,” she called Brown’s 2006 Slavery and Justice Report an extraordinary work, both for the quality, depth and breadth of its research and for the very fact of its existence.

“This is a document rooted in truth-telling, and the belief that the truth about history matters to us today,” Rooks said. “It makes clear that genocide and racism, and immorality and greed, and a universe of crimes that offend humanity, form the bedrock upon which rests this University, this state, this nation, these places that, for a time at least, we will all call home.”

Rooks said that with new and proposed laws aimed at controlling and sanitizing how its history is told, there is battle happening in roughly 20 states across the country that in places where successful, would make much of the information presented in the Slavery and Justice report illegal to teach in K-12 schools.

“I am talking about the dozens of bills banning the teaching of what some have labeled as ‘divisive topics’ such as genocide, slavery and racism…” Rooks said, citing a sweeping law in Tennessee that prohibits teachers from discussing racism, among other examples. “The consequences for teaching much of the information contained in the Slavery and Justice Report are very high…

“[These laws] call for shadows, darkness and erasure,” she told students. “They would suppress, or ban, what Brown University has asked you to engage and grapple with. Accordingly, for me, in this moment, this communal reading — this act — is a declaration of the principles on which Brown rests, and for which you should be grateful. I know I am.”

Rooks urged students to recognize the power they hold to “choose truth” and said she hopes the experience of reading the Slavery and Justice Report so early in their Brown experience will serve as a reminder to do that.

“Truth, memory and forgetting are first cousins — and so going forward, the frequency with which we revisit these cultural moments when some mandate that truth be crushed and silenced for generations of school children is ultimately in your hands,” she implored. “As you move through the next few years, I hope that you will take the opportunity that Brown offers you with its structure, and classes, guiding principles and world-class faculty to center truth, to think of yourselves as agents of change, and find the courage to remember, in the face of the easy seduction that is forgetting.”

Return to the College Green

Opening Convocation officially launched an academic year that Brown leaders hope will look much more like Fall 2019 — pre-COVID-19 pandemic — than Fall 2020, when extensive health and safety measures enabled campus activity to proceed in modified form. On the strength of near-universal vaccination on campus, continued COVID-19 testing amid the Delta variant surge and continually updated mask-wearing protocols, events like Convocation are expected to proceed largely as they would have prior to the pandemic.

In nearly every way, Opening Convocation 2021 offered Brown’s traditional experience to new students. The Van Wickle Gates opened. The Rhode Island Highlanders Pipe Band provided a soundtrack for the students’ procession. The Brown Band welcomed everyone. Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson offered an invocation to start the ceremony. The Higher Keys performed Brown’s alma mater.

Paxson closed the event by urging students to do their part to keeping the community healthy and activity in near full swing. 

“Last year, I was so proud of this community — everybody did so well keeping our community safe…” she said. “Our students, our faculty and staff, their families, the people who live in the neighborhoods around us — we all need to play our part in keeping them safe, too. Please do the right thing. I know you will.”