Simmons explains to BUCC why U. won’t apologize for slavery

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

President Ruth Simmons presented the University’s official plan to make amends for its historic ties to slavery to the Brown University Community Council Tuesday, calling the plan an “extensive response that reflects an understanding of the issues raised” by the report of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.

Simmons acknowledged and discussed her decision not to issue a formal apology, elaborated on the implementation of some elements of the University’s plan and explained how the response would be funded.

In 2003, Simmons appointed the steering committee to investigate Brown’s ties to slavery and the slave trade and recommend actions for the University to take. The committee issued its report last October.

The University’s response to that report, announced last month, called for a $10 million endowment for public education in Providence and funding for graduate fellows who agree to serve local schools. Its other initiatives included increased transparency about the University’s historic ties to slavery, discussions with local officials about the creation of a memorial to commemorate the slave trade and academic research initiatives related to slavery.

But the response did not include a formal apology. Simmons acknowledged Tuesday that an apology was an “implicit recommendation” of the committee’s report, but she said she intentionally excluded an apology because it seemed “like a dollop of whipped cream on a very serious, extensive process.”

“In drafting the response, I found it hardest to get my head and my heart around that notion,” Simmons said. “I found it strange to even contemplate how one would do that.”

Simmons also said the committee’s recommendation that the University examine investing in hedge funds was “not something that the Corporation took up,” but she did not elaborate.

A committee to investigate possible teaching and research initiatives related to slavery will be announced “in two weeks or so,” Simmons said.

Such an initiative was a central recommendation of the original report, and the University’s response calls for a committee to be formed and to make a recommendation by the fall.

The University is also beginning the process of strengthening the Department of Africana Studies by soliciting suggestions from department members, Simmons said, adding that she met with members of the department on Saturday.

“I expect that we will hear more about this in the coming months,” Simmons added.

BUCC member Kisa Takesue ’88, associate dean of student life, asked Simmons how the different elements of the response would be funded.

Funds will have to be raised for both the public education endowment and the teaching and research initiative, Simmons said, but waiving tuition for graduate students who agree to serve local public schools is “not really costing the University anything.”

Increasing aid to historically black colleges and universities would also be “not very costly,” Simmons said, because those efforts will likely focus on increasing Brown’s role as a “broker” and a “decision point” for aid going to those schools.

Simmons said commissioning a memorial would be a “one-time cost” to the University, the amount of which would depend on the scope of the project. Increasing dissemination of the report would also be a “one-time cost,” she said, adding simply, “We’ll pay for it.”

The low readership of the report has been a concern of Simmons’, and one the response seeks to address by calling for paper copies to be distributed free of charge – a printed version currently costs $7.50 – and for an executive summary to be made available.

Simmons told the BUCC that both the report’s 106-page length and “the way it was released” may have contributed to its “limited readership,” adding that she had “advocated for a much shorter report” before its release but that the committee was adamant the report not be shortened.

Toward the end of the discussion, Simmons responded to a question about response to the University’s slavery and justice initiative by acknowledging that some have criticized the effort and that race and the legacy of slavery are divisive issues. But she reasserted that the University has taken the lead in beginning to undo those lingering problems.

“The question for us was whether or not we could find a way … to be inclusive of the truth, embracing all aspects of it, and still come out of it with the capacity to talk across these divisions,” she said.

“We don’t have to worry about the nay-sayers, and we don’t have to worry about the people who are angry,” she added. “When we do (our work) best, we do it in the midst of all that.”