Class of 2016 Welcome

I extend my warmest welcome to members of the Class of 2016! If you are like most students I have known, you have waited with simmering impatience between the day you made your decision to attend Brown and the day when you could begin.  Well, that day has finally arrived, and all of us — faculty members, administrators, and other members of the Brown community — are thrilled to see you collected here on the College Green.  

Welcome, too, to all of the parents and family members who are here.  True, you will spend less time on campus than your children. But you are now deeply valued members of the Brown community.  Our students are who they are in large part because of the love, time and energy you poured into their development. And the values you imparted to them as children. OK, maybe you can’t take all the credit! But this is a day when you can relish all that your children have accomplished and reflect on your own roles in their journeys that brought them to Brown.

Just as all of you students have been eagerly waiting for the day that college life would begin, I have been waiting with great anticipation for your arrival. I am a new president. You are the very first class I have the privilege of welcoming to Brown. For this reason, you will always be special to me.  I can’t wait to see you march through the Van Wickle gates in a few days for the Opening Convocation that marks the start of the academic year. In the coming years, I will follow your academic progress, admire your performances in athletic and artistic events, and learn what social issues inspire you to action.  And, in time, I expect to join again with all of the family members gathered here today, to watch with pride as you march back through those gates as newly minted graduates and alumni of Brown University.  

I arrived at Brown in the early summer. Since then, I have been doing what you will be doing over the coming weeks and months: exploring.  I have visited dorms, classrooms, and faculty offices. I have toured our remarkable libraries and laboratories and visited one of our partner institutions, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Hole, where Brown students were conducting summer research. Of course, I have figured out the best places to eat along Thayer Street. 

My finest experiences have come from simply wandering through our campus. (Occasionally, these wanderings were the result of something you may experience — getting lost!)  I have discovered that Brown is an astonishingly beautiful place, with historic buildings such as University Hall that date to the time of Brown’s founding nearly 250 years ago, alongside new buildings such as the Granoff Center for the Arts, and the Nelson Fitness Center.  The campus has gracious open spaces such as this campus green, and secluded gardens that will take you by surprise.  There are spaces to meet with friends, to play Frisbee, and to spend time alone, reading or just … thinking.

I have also enjoyed getting “off the hill” to learn about the city of Providence and the surrounding areas. We are fortunate to be situated in a vibrant city in a beautiful state.

In addition to exploring the campus, I have been meeting as many department chairs and faculty members as I could fit into my schedule.  These discussions confirmed what I had always heard — that Brown is filled with distinguished scholars who care deeply about the students they teach and mentor. I kept my discussions with faculty members as open-ended as possible, letting their ambitions for and concerns about the University drive the agenda.  Although we discussed many things, I had not a single meeting with a faculty member in which the centrality of undergraduate education to Brown’s mission was not part of our conversation.

Although my explorations were very instructive, something was missing. Brown in the summer is beautiful and peaceful, but it lacks the vitality that only large numbers of students can bring.  With your arrival today, the cycle of work of the University begins again. Now, when I walk through campus, I expect to hear music coming from dorm windows, see classrooms and cafes filled with discussion and debate, and (I hope) have the pleasure of speaking with many of you about your transition to college life.

The beginning of college marks one of the most important transitions of your lives. Over the next four years, you will learn an incredible amount. You will refine your abilities to think critically and to express your ideas in writing and speech. You will come to understand the nuances of great music and literature, experience the satisfaction of cracking a hard proof, and feel the thrill of discovery when an experiment yields new insights.  You will learn how to frame a good argument, and how to listen to and appreciate the intellectual views held by others.

Your development will not be confined to academics. You will also grow as artists, athletes, and socially engaged citizens. You will come to understand how living in a community of peers with ideas, cultures and backgrounds quite different from your own can enrich and broaden your understanding of the world, and help you define the place that you want to take in society.  

I can guarantee you that your years here will fly by — and that the amount of change and growth you see in yourselves will be astonishing.

As a parent, I know full well that this is also a time of transition for the family members — especially the mothers and fathers — in the audience. Whether you are seeing your first-born off to college or you have been through this before, your pride and happiness in the accomplishments of your student may be tinged with a sense of loss and, perhaps, apprehension.  

All I can say is: Don’t worry. Your child will be only a text message away! And he or she will always need and want your support. But please, don’t expect too much contact. One of the most important aspects of this transition into full adulthood is the development of responsible and mature judgment that can only come with independence.

The theme of responsibility and independence is important here at Brown. As you know, a hallmark of our University is that we entrust our students with responsibility for their own educations.  Students are given unparalleled freedom to decide their courses of study and shape their educations in creative and innovative ways. We are proud to produce engineers who love literature; historians who go on to medical school; and economics concentrators who study theater. Some students choose to delve deeply into single subjects. Others take a broader approach to their educations.  And, while some students come here knowing exactly what they intend to study, others — probably the majority — take time to explore new areas before settling down to the one (or two or three) things about which they are most passionate.

Why do we give students so much responsibility and independence? Because we believe that doing so is critical to the single most important transition that can occur in college: that from being a student who is told what to learn — the norm in most high schools in the United States and around the world — to being an independent scholar who determines his or her own intellectual path.

I say that this transition “can occur” rather than “will occur” because, in truth, not all students make the difficult leap from student to scholar. You can certainly get a college diploma without doing so. But, if you do not make this leap, you will have missed the most essential part of a liberal arts education.

The truth is, many of the facts you learn and ideas you study at Brown will become outdated within a decade or two of your leaving.

Consider college students of your parent’s generation — my generation. Those of us who studied computer science learned to program in Fortran and Basic, not C++ and Java.  The science of climate change was in its infancy. Political science was still dominated by the discussion of the Cold War and Soviet-US relations.   The political boundaries shown on world maps were quite different than they are today.

Think of the concepts that were simply not in our vocabularies: behavioral economics, social entrepreneurship, digital humanities, and cybersecurity.

I can guarantee you that by the time you reach your 25th college reunion — and meet up with the students you see around you, all a little older and wiser — a whole new set of ideas and concerns will have come to the fore, pushing aside those that occupy us today.

If you leave Brown merely having mastered a set of facts, the value of your college education will have a very short shelf life. But, if you leave Brown having learned how to drive your own intellectual and creative development, the value of your education will be amplified over the course of your life.

Although you are being asked to take responsibility for your own educations, we do not expect you to do this without assistance. Your advisers, deans, and professors stand ready to provide guidance. Your Meiklejohn peer advisor and any number of the older students who will arrive over the next few days are committed to helping you chart your course. 

In the coming weeks, as you get to know the campus and the people who work here, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on the astounding array of resources that have been marshaled to support your development as responsible and independent human beings.  Use these resources fully and wisely. If you do, I am sure that your experience at Brown will be even better than you anticipated when you made your decision to join the marvelous … wonderful … and talented Class of 2016!

Welcome to Brown!