Simmons on the slavery and justice report

By
Monday, October 23, 2006

At Sunday morning’s Parents Weekend tradition, “An Hour With the President,” no parent or student asked President Ruth Simmons about the report from the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which was released Oct. 18. Simmons spoke with The Herald Saturday morning about the report’s recommendations, her goals when she appointed the committee three years ago and plans for the future.

Herald: James Campbell, associate professor of history and chair of the slavery and justice committee, has placed emphasis on using the report as a means to generate ongoing, campus-wide discussion. Will students read the report, after all? How will you get them to read the report?

Simmons: The purpose of this process was less near-term than long-term. Number one, the thing to keep in mind is that we have a document that will survive for centuries as a testament to what people of our time did in relationship to that complex history.

I rather think just as we’re sitting here today, looking back, reading the speeches of students from the 1800s, that there will be students at Brown in 100 years reading this report and trying to understand what it was like for us to live today, reflect on the problems of the past and what we should be doing. That’s the most exciting aspect. We wanted to make sure that as we created that record, people could peer into that process freely.

Sometimes, it’s less interesting – if (the committee’s work) had been much more closed, there would have been much more interest in it, in an ironic way – but it doesn’t lessen the value of what the committee has done. There’s so much for people to draw from in an ongoing way, so it may be a student next year, or the year after that who delves into this and draws something from it. That’s as important as anything else.

Do you have any more concrete ideas about a timeline for the implementation of recommendations? How, in more specific terms, will a discussion or debate on campus be facilitated? How will input about the recommendations be gathered?

We will take the recommendations to the (Brown University Community Council and the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life). … Any group that wants to take this up and to provide some formal feedback we would encourage, and we expect that the (Brown) Corporation would have an opportunity to discuss (the recommendations) as well, as thorough as possible without delaying a response to the report. How soon could we be prepared to respond? Probably by the beginning of next semester we might have an outline of what our response might be, in terms of any initiatives we might want to undertake. I’ll get a sense from the chancellor if the Corporation needs a chance to comment. (The next meeting of the Corporation is scheduled for February.)

What do you think about the recommendations? Were you underwhelmed by their conclusions?

I had received intermittent status reports from the committee over the course of their work, and I attended some of their public sessions, so I was not, I would say, surprised by their findings. It was, however, really interesting to read the detailed history that they wrote up and I was very impressed with the amount of effort that went into the report, their attention to identifying supplementary documents for their conclusions and the scholarly approach that they took. So overall, I guess the word I would use is quite impressed with the work they have done, and I’m really grateful to them for taking so much time to compile so much information.

I didn’t ask for the committee to try to identify shocking things. I asked them to do the work in a thoughtful way, and without any interference from the University, to give us the benefit of their conclusions after they looked into the history. And most importantly, because the committee was drawn from a variety of people across the University, (I asked them) to reflect in a way that might inform people of that diversity of experience and opinion.

I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of what they might recommend. In the end I would say that I’ll withhold comment on the recommendations in a formal sense, because I don’t want to interfere with the committee’s ability to interpret. I will do that, of course, in time.

But I think that there are some surprises in the recommendations for me both ways. In some sense, as I mentioned to the committee in a private session that they gave me before the report was completed, I was surprised by some of the recommendations in regard to how (the committee) framed their perspective on it.

I think that one of the concerns I expressed to the committee is that so many people would turn to the recommendations and not read the report. I would also say that the report’s description of the way that other societies have dealt with similar issues is also very informative, and those are very important aspects of this document. I also was of the mind that those who chose to move directly to the recommendations really wouldn’t benefit so much from this report. (The committee) had a real dilemma in trying to bring the report into the recommendations so people would understand the context of what they were saying. That’s always a dilemma that one has in the writing of any extensive report that includes recommendations: how to make sure that readers who have not followed the investigation can appreciate and understand why one has reached certain conclusions. No doubt that was one of the hardest parts of their task.

Campbell has made reference to not reducing the report’s release to a “15-minute flurry of media frenzy.” How is the media’s attempt to turn something like the slavery and justice committee into a soundbite dangerous – for example, the 2004 New York Times article that incorrectly suggested Brown was considering awarding monetary reparations for slavery? How is the media dangerous in terms of the bigger picture of encouraging a country to talk about its past historical injustices?

I think we are all mindful of the fact that any serious study and the addressing of any serious problem is always hostage to effort to reduce those questions to minimalist language and concepts for easy digestion by people who don’t want to take the time to delve into it more deeply. That’s a model of the popular culture that we are hostage to.

But at the same time, I feel pretty strongly that one does not respond to that dilemma by refusing to engage serious and even difficult questions. That would be exactly the wrong approach.

Especially in universities, we have to learn how to cope with that dilemma in the best way that we can. But it would be a horrible outcome of modern society if we failed to deal with difficult questions because we are fearful of the reaction to the effort and fearful of the media’s attempt to reduce a serious question to an interesting soundbite.

Universities represent one of the few places left in the country where you can do this kind of work. If universities fail to do it, then my goodness – what are we left with?

I won’t comment on the (most recent) press because I think that’s one of the dilemmas that we have – that people focus too much on press and how work like this will be received instead of focusing on the underlying questions: How interesting they are, how beneficial it is to study them, how significant it might be for society to gain greater understanding of them.

(People) refuse to go into public service, to speak out on difficult questions because of this concern of how it will be represented by the media. I feel pretty passionately that it’s important not to fall into that trap.

We’re going to take some very big hits in any work we do if it’s of any merit, and I hope that Brown is a place that is willing to do that, if it’s in keeping with what the University represents and what its educational mission is.

(Consider the) courageous actions of people at Brown involved in the debate in slavery – the fact that there were people at this university at a time that it would be perilous to speak against slavery, who (spoke out). There is a tradition at Brown of taking on difficult, complex, challenging subjects and revealing the truth as it is known to us at the time. I think that’s immensely important for us to signal, for students and for others.

Why was the release of the report pushed back from its originally scheduled spring 2006 release?

I think we were surprised – and I understand that (members of the committee) were surprised – that it took as long as it did. But keep in mind that one of the things I’d asked them to do is to open their deliberations to the community, so they really started with an effort to try to educate people about their work: (the Choices) curriculum for public schools, many lectures. I think if you were to subtract the time they took to try to fulfill that educational mission, then (the committee’s work) probably would have been concluded much sooner. But in some ways I think that (the educational mission) was as valuable an undertaking as the report itself, so I think it was probably worthwhile for them to engage these different aspects of the study. In the end, I would say this was not a full-time job for them. They were students and faculty who had other things they had to do, and consequently the amount of time left to work on this was limited. I think they did the right thing in taking the time needed to approach this in a thoughtful and very transparent way.

Was there a rationale behind the timing of the report’s release, late on a Wednesday afternoon with minimal press? Is there any truth to speculation that you released the report under-the-radar on purpose?

That’s very interesting. I wasn’t here when (the report) was released. The idea for the release was driven by when the committee would actually be ready with the material, and … (there was an) understanding that it would go up as soon as the Web site was completed – they felt that in order for people to understand the report they (needed all the documents online).

I would have been happy to release it, frankly, at any time, but (because of the committee’s request to have the Web site up first) it was impossible to be flexible on the release.

As usual, it’s very uncomplicated compared with what people take to be the scenario.