Date September 5, 2023
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At 260th Convocation, Brown University welcomes incoming students

Brown’s Opening Convocation brought moments of celebration, levity and poignancy, as University leaders upheld their commitment to advancing diversity on campus and urged students to continue fighting for sustainable climate solutions.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Soaring temperatures and humidity weren’t enough to dampen high spirits at Brown University’s Opening Convocation, held Tuesday, Sept. 5, on College Hill. Thousands in the Brown community braved the 93-degree heat index to celebrate the incoming Class of 2027 and ring in the University’s 260th academic year.

Smiles, selfies and cheers dominated the afternoon scene at the Van Wickle Gates, where many of the 3,165 incoming undergraduate, graduate, medical and transfer students participated in Brown’s beloved start-of-academic-year procession. The students, who came to Providence from all corners of the United States and the globe, proudly carried Brown banners and waved University pennants as they walked through the open gates.

“This is one of the highlights of my year, and it has been so for the past 11 years,” Brown President Christina H. Paxson said to students, beaming, from the steps of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center.

Paxson recalled that in 2012, in her first Convocation speech at Brown, she had emphasized the importance of diversity on campus. People who come from different backgrounds and hold different beliefs, she argued then, are bound to challenge and learn from one another when they come together, immeasurably enriching each other’s lives. 

“Imagine, just imagine, how much poorer we would be as a University if our students came in with monotonously similar life experiences and worldviews, unequipped to ask and answer the provocative questions that are central to learning,” Paxson said. “Imagine how much a student from an immigrant family might add to a classroom debate on immigration policy; how much a student veteran could contribute to discussions of military strategy or post-traumatic stress disorder; how the life experiences and insights of a Black medical student might spark new research on racial disparities in maternal mortality and other health outcomes.”

Those ideals weren’t particularly controversial a decade ago — but times have changed, Paxson said. Americans reacted divisively to the Supreme Court’s June decision barring the consideration of a prospective student’s race and ethnicity in college admissions, with 52% approving, 32% disapproving and 16% remaining undecided, according to one ABC News/Ipsos poll.

Paxson said she remains disappointed in the court’s decision, but she assured incoming students that diversity on campus remains a top priority for Brown.

“Eleven years after that first Convocation speech…I continue to be incredibly optimistic about Brown’s future, and our ability to draw on our differences to advance knowledge and understanding, for the benefit of society,” she said. “My optimism is fueled by you. …Each and every one of you has so much to offer this community, in your own extraordinary way.”

‘Let us work together’

The afternoon heat was a pervasive feature of Brown’s Convocation celebrations, nudging climate change to the forefront of many attendees’ minds. “It’s so hot!” many students exclaimed, fanning themselves, as they made their way from the Van Wickle Gates to the College Green.

“We grant that together, we may raise heads and hands…to create new modes of sustaining global life and hope amid rising floods, soaring fires, frightening wind,” University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson offered in an invocation, referencing some of the record-breaking, and in some cases deadly, weather events that had happened across the globe over the summer.

Let us work together, in community and shared purpose, to ensure that our climate inheritance to the next generation is as large, as enduring, as it can possibly be.

Kim Cobb Director, Institute at Brown for Environment and Society
Kim Cobb speaking at a podium

From the podium, Paxson acknowledged that climate change ranks among the biggest concerns on campus: There are at least a dozen climate- and sustainability-focused student organizations, and many Brown graduates go on to pursue careers in sustainable policymaking, climate advocacy and more. 

That was why, she said, she had invited one of the globe’s foremost climate experts — Professor Kim Cobb, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society — to give a keynote speech. 

In an address titled “Your Climate Inheritance,” Cobb, an expert on coral reefs’ response to rising ocean temperatures, didn’t shy away from the truth: That the most recent summer of fires, floods and heat waves across the globe portends difficult challenges ahead. But rather than focusing solely on the bad news, Cobb also shared some good news: Future generations are better equipped than ever to confront climate change.

“You’ve inherited the most complete picture of our climate past, present and future, thanks to decades of research, some conducted right here at Brown,” Cobb told students. “This allows for evidence-based decision-making about our climate and energy future that will save lives and ensure continued prosperity for as many as possible, for generations to come.”

Cobb said students have also inherited a global network of millions of so-called “climate people” — experts and advocates who, like Cobb, “just can’t, or won’t, shut up about climate change.” Scholars aren’t the only “climate people,” Cobb was quick to point out: among that network are people like Class of 2022 graduate Zanagee Artis, founder of the youth-led climate justice organization Zero Hour.

“Climate people,” Cobb said, have been key to building the momentum needed to stop global warming, and even initiate cooling, by the middle of the 21st century. And, she said, they’ve been crucial in shaping Brown’s own sustainability goals: It was students, after all, who rolled up their sleeves to transform an old carriage house into an Urban Environmental Lab in 1978, who founded the first Global Warming Information Week a few years later, and who urged the University to adopt a net-zero emissions pledge in the 2000s.

Cobb entreated students from all disciplines to continue fighting for sustainability action at Brown and beyond. 

“We need chroniclers and storytellers and sensemakers of this unique moment in time,” Cobb said. “We need policymakers and economists and doctors. We need big data wranglers and technology innovators and finance gurus. We need urban planners, psychologists, and carbon sequesterers. We need teachers and artists and lawyers. …Let us work together, in community and shared purpose, to ensure that our climate inheritance to the next generation is as large, as enduring, as it can possibly be.”