Editorial: A legacy deferred?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Her face adorns many of our t-shirts, and her strong but soft voice is instantly recognizable. She is an icon to Brown students, just like Gail is to Sharpe Refectory-goers and Loui’s is to insomniacs. President Ruth Simmons – or just “Ruth” to many – has had a pioneering tenure as the leader of Brown. Simmons has made great strides during her 11 years here, spearheading improvements in Brown’s physical and human capital. However, there is still one obstacle to overcome before Simmons cedes her University Hall office to President-elect Christina Paxson. 

In 2003, President Simmons created a steering committee dedicated to researching Brown’s historic association with slavery. In 2006, a report by the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice recommended that a center for research be instituted. Whether motivated by personal or academic passion, Simmons, along with the 17 members of the committee, has spent the past six years trying to bring this idea to fruition. 

The biggest obstacle thus far has been the search for a director of the center. Over the past couple of years, several worthy candidates have either declined their offers or have been rejected.  Thankfully, as The Herald reported last week, Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 has said he hopes a director will be appointed by the end of the semester. The establishment of this center will not only provide a perfect capstone to Simmons’ time as president, but its creation will ensure that even as Brown looks ever forward to the future, it remains able to learn from its past. 

We hope that once a director is appointed, he or she will move forward to implement many of the other unfulfilled recommendations of the Committee on Slavery and Justice. Slavery’s implications and repercussions have not completely faded, even at Brown, which is why it is so crucial for the University to investigate and recognize its role in the slave trade. Racial awareness can be increasingly realized by implementing the committee’s proposal to develop classes that analyze racial issues. Similarly, a renewed commitment to soliciting donations for the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence – another committee proposal languishing too near to the bottom of the University’s priority list – could not only help remedy tensions between Brown and Providence, but also offer a strong recognition of the lasting legacy of slavery and discrimination on students today.

Brown is an institution that prides itself on its diversity, but it still struggles to realize the full promise of this diversity. And the racial and socioeconomic divisions on campus – never explicit but too often present nonetheless – have tragically deep historical roots. The center’s completion will allow the University to genuinely back up its commitment to awareness and sensitivity of these issues. We can be the groundbreaking institution dedicated to confronting head-on one of the most reprehensible aspects of our country’s past. 

The establishment of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and officially naming a director may well be some of Simmons’s final acts as president. And, for a sharecropper’s daughter who became the first black president of an Ivy League school, it would be a fitting end to publicly recognize the institution that made her life story so tragically uncommon. 


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.