Brown, RISD presidents ‘consummate’ union

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Monday, September 24, 2007

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With the trappings of an international peace conference and the jovial atmosphere of a wedding reception, President Ruth Simmons and Rhode Island School of Design President Roger Mandle officially signed an agreement Friday afternoon to launch the new Brown/RISD dual degree program.

The two presidents met at the University Club on Benefit Street – neutral territory, of course – to swap friendly words and affix their signatures to an official memorandum of understanding at a brief ceremony attended by roughly 30 people from both universities.

The program – slated to bring its first students to campus in Fall 2008 – will enable a select group of up to 20 students per year to earn both a bachelor of fine arts from RISD and a bachelor’s degree from Brown. Their studies will be split evenly between the two campuses over the course of five years, with students taking all of their classes in a given semester on one campus in order to avoid conflict between the two schools’ differing calendars.

After an introduction by RISD Provost Jay Coogan, Simmons and Mandle, seated side-by-side beneath a painted cityscape of College Hill, signed three copies of the binding legal document – one for each president and one for the lawyers – then punctuated the signing with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek as the cluster of onlookers – faculty and administrators involved in planning the program and three students who provided inspiration for it – applauded.

“Brown and RISD are both known for both independent thought and multidisciplinary inquiry,” Simmons said in her remarks. “I think this program will … harness the strengths of both RISD and Brown to provide students with a wider knowledge base and a wider campus for exploration.”

“We can’t wait to see what exciting results this marriage will produce,” Simmons added, broaching a theme that would become an extended metaphor – and a source of banter between the two presidents – throughout the ceremony. “

Marriage is about a lot of things, and we want to make sure that this is a well-consummated marriage,” Simmons said.

Mandle spoke next – “don’t read anything into it,” Simmons joked about the order, assuring it had been determined alphabetically by school name – and struck a similarly warm tone. As Simmons finished introducing Mandle, the two greeted each other warmly and kissed again.

Mandle noted that RISD’s creation grew out of an idea initiated at Brown and joked that the two schools have been “engaged” for “nearly 100 years.”

“We were out of the rib of Adam or Eve or however you would depict it during that time,” Mandle said.

“Eve,” Simmons cut in, drawing the loudest laughs of the afternoon.

Mandle also spoke optimistically about the possibility of further collaboration.

“Here we are today … at a new threshold of a relationship which I see growing and developing in the future beyond what we’ve already established today,” he said.

Remarks from Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 concluded the ceremony, which he jokingly likened to the historic summit of the Allied leaders at Yalta during World War II. He reiterated the thanks extended earlier by Kougan and emphasized the challenges that marked the process of establishing the program.

“We all had the will, we wanted to do it, but it turned out to be incredibly complicated,” Kertzer said. “For example, things we never thought of: How about all those Brown/RISD football players?”

The details of the program and each school’s commitments to it, laid out in the memorandum, represent the culmination of years of work, most recently conducted by a joint working group between the two schools. The program approved by that working group, which was appointed in 2006, began making its way through the approval process at both schools last spring.

The process was “not as easy as it appears,” Simmons told The Herald before the ceremony, but the two schools “settled those nettlesome issues that could have stopped the negotiations.”

“I think it’s very hard for people who have not participated in the years of planning and debate and so forth to understand why this is such a phenomenal event and why we’re all so happy about it,” Simmons said in her remarks. “I hope you get a sense of that today.”

“What made this happen is not so much what administratively Brown and RISD wanted to do but the very central aim of both institutions, and that is to serve its students well. This is about making something possible for our students,” Simmons said.

“What I’m most excited about is how getting here has actually created a catalyst for more discussions of what Brown and RISD can do together,” Mandle told The Herald after the signing, adding that this sort of collaboration is what both schools need in order to maintain their “competitive edge.”

Students played a pioneering role in bringing about the collaboration, both schools’ leaders emphasized. As a freshman, Gamaal Wilson ‘06.5 approached Richard Fishman, professor of visual art and chair of the department, about pursuing a joint degree and gained administrators’ attention in the process. Eleven semesters and one summer session later, he graduated with a degree in film from RISD and a degree in English from Brown.

Two other students – Alice Costas ’09, who recently transferred from RISD to Brown and Andrew Bearnot, currently in RISD’s glass program – are now pursuing individual paths to a joint degree as well.

All three were in attendance and were individually acknowledged at the ceremony, and Bearnot and Costas posed for photographs with Simmons, Mandle, Coogan, and Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 afterward.

Refreshments – including ham, turkey and tuna sandwiches and a dessert spread of assorted chocolates, fruit tarts and cookies – accompanied the ceremony.