2019 Brown University Opening Convocation

2019 Brown University Opening Convocation


O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early
light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright
stars, through the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming.
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that
our flag was still there. Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land
of the free and the home of the brave? Please remain standing. Brunonia, let us pray.
In this moment of beginning, we step forward through a beckoning gate that promises to
close not to shut out the world, but to encircle us, a community of scholarship, as we gather
to work and to live together for this season. In this moment of beginning we step not into
our schedules, that abyss of appointments, papers and courses that await us all, but
as scholars new and established we step together. We choose together. To make a step on a continuing
pilgrimage of learning, we choose a path for its promise of both knowledge and wisdom.
We yearn together to understand better. We step together, toward one another. We choose
in this moment to entrust our lives to one another for this season in Brunonia. In this
moment of beginning, we step onto the bricks of this place, choosing to listen for insight.
Mid the sighing of the trees, poets speak from the realms of eternity, Toni Morrison
instructs us that “no matter how hard we try to ignore it, the mind always knows truth
and wants clarity.” Mary Oliver reminds, “attention is the beginning of devotion,” and the ancient
prophet Micah articulates that “eternity requires that we seek justice, love kindness, walk
humbly with God and with one another.” In these, our first steps together, we choose mindfulness,
mindfulness of our time and of this season, the thresholds that we cross, the gates swung
wide to welcome our arrival. We pledge our gifts and disciplines to remove the lethal
barriers of our time, the threat, the fear, the harm, the urgency, the global politics
of greed banality and even bigotry, all that undermines human good, even our survival.
We step together to choose attention, devotion to our generation and generations to come.
In the deep, ancient and ever new truths that together we may find, our hearts, our minds
will see with clarity, and we choose to step together, to seek justice and loving kindness.
To reply to our neighbors’ need here and far beyond, to open a path of human rescue,
that life on our swiftly changing planet may yet survive. With clarity, we know these endeavors
to be worth our very lives, to be true, ever true. May we choose, Brunonians, steps adequate
to fulfill the charter’s hope to discharge our lives and the offices of life with usefulness
and reputation, to become in this moment and in the moments to come a blessing in the life
of a world within which all may yet be beloved. Amen. Please be seated. Members of the Brown community – faculty,
staff, alumni, parents and students – it is my great pleasure, as President of Brown
University, to declare the two hundred and fifty-sixth academic year open! I want to
welcome members of the entering classes of the Medical School, Graduate School, and the
College. Among them are: 144 dedicated medical school
students. So dedicated that they’ve been here already a month and are studying for their
first exams. So, welcome. 876 exceptionally talented master’s and doctoral students,
10 brilliant Resumed Undergraduate Education scholars – students who have gained life
experience after high school before coming to Brown, 85 very wise and perceptive transfer
students. And of course, 1,665 exceptional first-year
students, the core of the Brown Class of 2023! Now, I want to give shout-outs to two groups
of students. First, the 174 undergraduates who
indicated on their applications that they are the first
in their families to attend college! Welcome. And second, the 619 international students
– undergraduate, graduate and medical – who decided to pursue their education here in
the United States, at Brown! We welcome you! One of Brown’s greatest strengths is the
diversity of talent that it draws from all over the country and the world. Please, take every
opportunity you can to learn from the incredible range of experiences and perspectives of your
classmates, and to share your own stories with them. Now, this is always a really wonderful
day, celebratory, it’s filled with excitement and anticipation about the academic year that
is about to begin. But even on a joyful occasion like this, we
have to remember the world outside of Brown. And so, I ask that we pause for a moment of
silence in recognition of the victims and families affected by gun violence in this
country, most recently in Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, and just recently Odessa, as well
as in other episodes of violence around the globe. Please join me in a moment of silence. Thank you. You know, often, when terrible things happen, we feel powerless to do anything
to make the world better. But I think my single message to you today is that you don’t have
to feel that way. I say this because I know that your Brown experience will empower you
to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. Today, I want
to make the case that learning how to make the world better is exactly why
you are here. And that your Brown education will give you exactly the right knowledge
and experience you’ll need to be a powerful agent of change. You will have so many opportunities
to learn from and work with people—faculty, staff, and other students—who are dedicated
to using their knowledge to make a difference. And you will find so many occasions to put
what you learn to good use. Let me begin by telling you about Megan Ranney. Megan is an
emergency physician and a faculty member at the Warren Alpert Medical School here at Brown.
Emergency department doctors like Megan are on the front lines of treating victims of
gun violence, saving lives, day in, day out. But Megan wants to do more. She wants to prevent
gun violence. She views firearms injuries and deaths through the lens of public health
– literally, as a public health crisis. Her research, which she often conducts together
with Brown students, is informed by data on what approaches work. And which don’t – like,
for example, the myth that mental illness is the primary cause of mass shootings. In
a recent op-ed, Megan and a co-author pointed out that, and I quote, “Mental illness is
certainly a problem in this country. But hate is not a mental illness.” Megan is a driving
force within a growing network of health care professionals who are dedicated to preventing
gun violence. In part because their data-driven public health approach rises, at least a little
bit, above the fray of partisan politics. They’re changing public opinion and they
are impacting policy. They’re making a difference. This is the kind of powerful work you will
find here at Brown – work that you can contribute to, through classes, internships, independent
research, extracurricular activities. Megan, and many others like her, will inspire you,
inspire all of us to live lives of meaning and purpose. My broader point is that knowledge
does confer the power to make the world better. I could
give so many examples based on what’s happening right here at Brown. One example,
the pioneering work over at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society to help
cities and regions of the world develop resilience to climate change and plan for a clean energy
future. The “Costs of War” project over at the Watson Institute for International
and Public Affairs, with leadership from Professor of Anthropology Catherine Lutz, is bringing
into very sharp focus the financial and human costs of global conflicts. A collaboration
between Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and Firelight Media. They’re
working to produce a multi-part documentary about the Atlantic slave trade, to deepen
our understanding of how its legacies continue to shape the modern world—even 400 years
ago, just last month, after the first enslaved Africans arrived
in North America. I would also note the work of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform,
where Brown students are working with faculty to assess how to help struggling K-12 school
systems prepare children for lives of upward mobility – with the kind of practical knowledge
that is desperately needed across the world, and right here in Providence. Or finally,
I’d note the research in Dr. Jake Curtis’ lab to create a vaccine for malaria. This
is a disease that kills over 1 million people per year, mostly children under the age of
five. It turns out that Jake, now a faculty member and director of Brown’s MD/PhD program,
he went to college at Brown. Just like all of you. His passion for curing malaria was
inspired by a summer internship after his junior year, when he went to Kenya to study
coral reef ecology. You might wonder how he went from studying coral reef ecology to seeking
a cure for malaria. Or maybe you guessed it. He contracted cerebral malaria while he was
in Kenya on that internship. But fortunately for the world, he recovered. Now, my lesson
here is that you don’t have to be stricken with a potentially-deadly disease to find
your calling in life. Please don’t. We don’t want that to happen. But you do have to approach
your studies with rigor, and intentionality, and a mind that’s open to seeing how the knowledge
you acquire will empower you to make the world better. Finally, I want to highlight two important,
related points as you embark on your journey as Brown students. One, the single most important
virtue that you’ll cultivate at Brown are habits of mind that enable you to analyze,
and communicate and address complex issues with empathy, nuance, and wisdom. And two,
you can acquire these habits of mind by studying, well, pretty much anything. Now,
I’m an economist – and this is a field considered by many, rightly or wrongly, to be a sure
path to a good job. And we have so many outstanding students here at Brown who are learning about
engineering, computer science, and medicine. If you study these subjects, it will be obvious
how the knowledge that you’re acquiring can be applied to pressing real-world issues.
But for those of you who are drawn to subjects that may seem farther removed from the issues
of the day – philosophy or theater or theoretical astrophysics – remind yourselves (and, possibly,
your skeptical parents!) that you are developing the strongest possible foundation for a life
of meaning and purpose. The world’s problems can’t be addressed without people who think
deeply about ethics; who understand the power of art to raise provocative questions and
bring groups together; or who, by studying the universe, are able to see human problems
with balance and perspective. And I suspect this is, in part, why you chose Brown – to
explore, to inquire, to discover precisely how you can make the world better. And I believe
this will prove to be among the most profound choices you will ever make.
Now let me introduce our keynote speaker. There is no one better than Dean of the College
Rashid Zia to explain the power of the principles that drive Brown’s approach to education
and scholarship. Dean Zia knows Brown well from multiple perspectives. As a Brown undergraduate
he came to appreciate how the open curriculum puts students at the center of their academic
journeys and empowered them to learn how to learn. Inspired by a faculty essay on the
importance of taking courses outside of one’s comfort zone, he loved that he could study
English and Engineering at the same time, and so he decided to concentrate in both.
As a Brown professor, he knows his students are there because they want to be there, they
want to be challenged and they want to learn across disciplines, and he gets how important,
how important mentoring is at Brown, particularly for first-year students, and he expresses
gratitude regularly for the support that faculty, staff, and peers gave him while he was an
undergraduate. As Dean of the College, Rashid Zia sets the tone for academic excellence,
ensuring that all Brown students are engaged, empowered and transformed by their education.
This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the open curriculum, his thought leadership
celebrates Brown’s collaborative, rigorous, student-centered academic culture. His passion,
lifelong passion, for Brown’s educational mission is among the many reasons we’re
lucky to have him here. So please welcome our Dean of the College, Rashid Zia. Thank you, President Paxson for the kind introduction,
and thank you so much for the opportunity to welcome the newest members of our Brown
community. Good afternoon to the Undergraduate Class of 2023 and to the Undergraduate Class
of 2024 from our Brown-RISD Dual Degree Program. Good afternoon to our newest Transfer and
Resumed Undergraduate Education students from the Classes of 2021, 2022, 2023, we are so
delighted to have you join us. And good afternoon to all of the new graduate, medical, and professional
students, from the Masters Class of 2020 to the Medical Class of 2023 and the Doctoral
Classes of 2022, 2023, 2024, and beyond. It is my sincere honor to welcome you today from
this location, because as a Brown undergraduate alum, this building, Faunce House, has special
meaning for me. I still remember with joy my first evening here on these steps, where
my class gathered for the annual ice cream social. I still recall the anticipation and
excitement of that evening, how exhilarating it was to meet so many peers from around the
country and around the world – who shared so many hopes and interests and values. The
people I met that night, and over the course of my studies here at Brown (which thankfully
continue to this day), would become my friends and mentors, my colleagues and teachers, members
of my chosen family – united by a shared passion for learning, for discovery, and for
community. So in our brief time together this afternoon, I want to share with you some stories
and suggestions that might help you to find and make space on this campus. And to set
the stage, I hope it is okay if we use as a touchstone the final word from our Latin
motto – speramus. Speramus, is the plural subjective case of the verb “to hope.” We
hope, we trust, good things will happen. Ian, my Classics classmate that I met on these
steps that night would be proud. It’s my goal today to bring forth these words, and
to show you how hope and trust have helped to shape this University into one of the most
powerful spaces for shared learning and discovery in the world. Let me start, though, with a
story of hopes – the hopes that carried you up College Hill and through the gates of our
campus. If you close your eyes, I am sure you can imagine the many people whose care
and kindness made your journey to this place possible – your family and friends, teachers
and counselors, loved ones. And as you picture them, think of their concrete hopes for you
here, all that they might wish you do and achieve here. I am lucky, because I do not
need to close my eyes to picture some of the people whose hopes carried me to this campus
– my mother and father are here with us this afternoon. Salam Baba, salam Mama. My
dad was the first in his family to go to college in Iran, and was then fortunate to earn a
fellowship to come to America for graduate studies. I can only imagine the hopes that
helped carry my dad and mom on that flight to the United States, or after graduation,
on their flight back home to Iran where they would start and grow our family. Of all those
concrete hopes, though, I am sure they could never have imagined the impact of that journey
or how education would transform their lives, ultimately helping our family escape the bombs
of the Iran-Iraq War to rebuild our home here as immigrants and now citizens of the United
States. Life is so unpredictable, and the impact of education so profound, that whatever
those concretes hopes may be that have lifted you to this place today, they most certainly
underestimate what will be made possible by your education. Because education and research
and shared knowledge expand the realms of possibility. They allow us to imagine and
then realize better lives for ourselves, for our communities, for our world. This hope,
this optimism in education, defines the foundation of our community. Optimism is at the very
core of the Open Curriculum, which underlies the spirit of shared learning and open inquiry
on this campus. When people come together, there is a fundamental choice – a choice about
how we associate with one another, how we build rules and structures. In many settings,
people come together and design rules that avoid conflict, they seek to anticipate and
prevent all that could go wrong. At Brown, we chose 50 years ago to
take a different path. Inspired by students, like yourselves, who imagined what might be
the best possible education, our curriculum sets out to promote all that could go right.
Rather than beginning with a set of rules, our Open Curriculum is defined by a philosophy
of education – an enduring and unifying purpose. This is why, when you open the Brown Faculty
Rules and Regulations to the section entitled “Baccalaureate Degree Requirements,” the
first text you see is not a requirement at all. It is a short, five sentence Statement
of Principles that defines the purpose of education at Brown. It was here, within Faunce
House on the evening of May 7th, 1969, that students, faculty and administrators crafted
those five enduring sentences that would come to define Brown’s distinctive approach to
education, and I would like to share them with you today. The first sentence says, “The
purpose of undergraduate education, and indeed all education at Brown, is to promote the
intellectual and personal growth of the individual student.” The key words here are “the
individual student.” We are not seeking to create an education that works for most
students, or for an idealized student, or for one type of student; rather, we seek to
provide an individualized education for each and every student on this campus. The next
sentence defines how we achieve this high standard. It says, “The student, ultimately
responsible for [their] own development in both of these areas, must be an active participant
in framing [their] own education.” The only way to achieve an individualized education
is to provide you – the student – with the opportunity and responsibility to make choices,
to take risks, to challenge yourselves and to thus learn through both success and failure.
Of course, that process is hard, and so the next sentence defines how we support this
as a community. It says, “A central aspect of this development is the relationship of
the student with professors [with staff] and [with] fellow students and with the material
they approach together.” This is a statement about partnership and shared learning, about
how we support one another, one which I hope you have already seen in action since you’ve
arrived here, with your academic advisors, and Meiklejohn peer advisors, and residential
peer leaders. And it is one that I hope you will live out, perhaps as first-year UTRA
fellows this summer working in close partnership with faculty on research projects advancing
the frontiers of knowledge, perhaps as Problem-Solving Fellows and Writing Fellows deepening and
sharing that knowledge with fellow peers as mentors and teachers on campus, and as Engaged
Scholars working with off-campus partners to apply knowledge in support of our local
and global communities. Having defined both purpose and practice, then and only then,
does the Statement turn to rules. It says, it concludes: “Structures, rules, and regulations
of the University should facilitate these relationships and should provide the student
with maximum opportunity to formulate and achieve [their] educational objectives. Accordingly,
the curricular structure reflects these purposes.” Because of course, we need rules and structure
to define our community, but our community is not and should not be defined by those
rules. Rather, if we seek to achieve all that education can enable, the rules and structures
should help to support our relationships with one another and with the material we approach
together. In the abstract, this philosophy is great, but let me share a secret you will
soon discover. In practice, it can be hard, because optimism relies on trust. We have
to trust one another. Remember those loved ones and their hopes for you. To the extent
that you can feel and see their goals and best intentions for you – that trust has
taken a lifetime to build. And the challenge is that when we enter into new communities,
it will take time to build that trust again. Even more importantly, we can never truly
know others’ intentions or goals. Although our minds are trained from birth to construct
narratives and explanations of the world around us, we cannot know why someone does the things
they do. And this poses a challenge, especially within any community of smart and observant
scholars. It is hard not to see intent in actions. I recall watching a video that helps
to illustrate this problem, which I think I’m going to try to pantomime. So, in this
video there are two dots, one big and one small. First, they move from left to right,
across the screen, disappearing. Before returning in switched positions, moving from right to
left. When asked to describe the video to others many people will say something like:
the big dot was chasing the little dot, or the little dot was running away from the big
dot. That is, most of us, myself included, will construct a narrative; we will ascribe
intentions to the characters we see. There is, thankfully though, a way we can use this
inclination to build trust, and it is one that I have learned from my students, mentors,
and colleagues here: to honor intentions. Since we can never have access to what another
person thinks or wants, we can try to imagine the best possible intention. Perhaps the little
dot was late for class and was running as fast as they could to get there, perhaps the
big dot saw them drop their wallet and was running to return it. I know this example
is artificial, but I am sure that each of you can imagine a more concrete case for yourself. Perhaps
when someone you met this weekend did something unexpected, and your mind quickly filled in
the gap. Next time it happens, see if you can slow down that moment and imagine the
best possible intentions. The complement to this challenge, however, is even harder. While
we never know the intentions of others, we always feel deeply aware and confident in
our own intentions. That means, when things go awry, when mistakes occur, and when our
actions have unexpected consequences, it can be hard to understand and reconcile. These
are the moments that can break trust, when we may fall short of ourselves and our hopes.
But even then, the process can be helped by practice: trust me — I have made enough mistakes
to have practiced a lot. Rebuilding trust requires owning our impact, understanding
that regardless of our best intentions, if we seek to be in this shared learning community
together, we must take account of how our actions impact others especially in the ways
that we did not intend. Owning our impact begins with empathy, with reflection and with
a sincere commitment to both learn from our mistakes and to take actions to make amends.
It is an active process and a human lesson. A part of our personal and intellectual development.
Honoring intentions and owning impact are, thus, at the heart of this community, at the
foundation of our purpose-driven Curriculum, and they represent, I would venture, the best
path toward realizing our shared hopes for this campus, for this country, and for this
world together. We place our faith in you and all that you will accomplish. Speramus
– we hope, we trust, good things will happen. Thank you. Let’s give another round of applause to Dean Zia for a great keynote, and again I extend
my very best wishes to all of you for a happy and productive and healthy academic year and
beyond. Now please join us, join the Higher Keys, in singing the Alma Mater. I know many
of you don’t know the words yet. They are in your program. So, let’s go. Alma Mater! We hail thee with loyal devotion, And
bring to thine altar our off’ring of praise; Our hearts swell within us, with joyful emotion, As
the name of Old Brown in loud chorus we raise. The happiest moments of youth’s fleeting hours, We’ve
passed, ’neath the shade of these time-honored walls, And sorrows as transient as April’s
brief showers, Have clouded our life in Brunonia’s halls.

Antonio Breitenberg

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