In ceremonies punctuated with insights from the past, celebrations of present successes and excitement for the future, members of the Brown community and distinguished guests marked the inauguration of the University’s 19th president, Christina Paxson.
Friday’s event was intended to celebrate the inauguration, while Saturday marked a more official welcoming of the president. Over the course of the weekend, administrators and local officials praised Paxson and encouraged her to continue the University’s tradition of liberal learning. Paxson also seized the opportunity to reiterate the University’s commitment to a universal need-blind admission policy.
Explosive brass opened the event Friday night, as local brass band What Cheer? Brigade stormed in from the rear of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Many of the musicians, dressed all in black, leapt to the stage and gestured wildly. The group was followed by the Brown Jazz Band, as well as Word!, a campus spoken word and poetry group, and several other performance groups, including Badmaash Dance Company.
Kate Burton ’79 P’11 hosted the event and read from the letters of Abigail Adams, who advocated women’s rights at the time of the nation’s founding. “We should have learned women,” Burton quoted, adding that Adams also stressed that people should not be bound by laws that do not represent their unique civic voices.
Participants in the celebration extended personal greetings to Paxson, gesturing to the second tier where Paxson was seated during the ceremony.
Speakers and participants described the impressions Paxson has made on them in her short time as president. “Brown has found just the right leader for this moment of the University’s history,” Burton said.
Local poet Christopher Johnson shared a poem about the University’s virtues. “(Paxson) said Brown has a way of taking what’s okay and doing it better, like integrating into a fast-moving world and having an impact on that world,” his poem read.
Paxson is “very humble, sincere and open,” Rodney Robinson ’73, who attended the event, told The Herald.
As the ceremony closed, What Cheer? Brigade played upbeat numbers that caused audience members – even Paxson and her family – to sway to the music as they left the auditorium.
Community members reconvened Saturday afternoon on the Main Green, following the Corporation meeting. Ceremony participants – including student representatives, faculty members, campus administrators, local and national political figures and representatives of the academic community – examined issues the University has faced over the years and extolled the spirit embodied by its leaders.
The officials progressed through Faunce Arch and through the audience gathered near the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center “to confirm the University’s charter,” said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, who led the invocation.
A new president offers a chance to renew the spirit of the University, said Anika Profit-Grier, senior biographic data specialist and Staff Advisory Council chair, in a speech.
“Brown’s strength has always been its people,” Mary Louise Gill, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee and professor of philosophy and classics, told the audience. Though leading the University will always be a “daunting endeavor,” Gill said Paxson should “anticipate a new era of achievement and growth of Brown under (her) leadership.”
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras expressed his excitement, sharing his belief that “our future is bright for Brown and Providence.”
At this moment of change, the University should “honor tradition while looking toward the future,” said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., adding that Paxson will “build on the legacy of leadership” created by former President Ruth Simmons.
Simmons, along with former Presidents Sheila Blumstein and Vartan Gregorian, attended the ceremony.
Nineteen “is going to be Brown’s lucky number,” said Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton, who served as one of Paxson’s mentors during her time at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The University will be well-cared-for under Paxson, whose leadership is characterized by “quiet confidence and unshakable composure,” she said.
Paxson has an ability to listen, forge consensus and stick to the decisions she makes, Tilghman said, adding that she has “creativity, ingenuity (and) willingness to question the status quo.”
Following these remarks, Paxson took part in traditions carried out by her 18 predecessors as she was presented with the University charter and the chain of office and sat in the Manning Chair, which was donated to the University by its first chancellor.
Paxson ended the ceremony with remarks that highlighted the vision the University has embodied from its inception and the larger importance of higher education.
“Thank you so much for the trust you’ve placed in me,” she told the audience.
“We are not in the business of producing widgets” – people who graduate Brown ready-made for certain careers, she said. Paxson added that a Brown education has the ability to effect change by fostering analytical thinking and a comprehensive approach to problem-solving.
Brown is about the “cultivation of creative and talented people who will lead us,” she said, adding that “if universities like us don’t undertake this work, nobody will.”
Paxson’s renewal of the University’s commitment to making the school accessible to all students regardless of their ability to pay was met with great applause and cheers from the audience.
Paxson used her own course of study to highlight the duty of learning, adding that she chose economics because it combines the study of “resource allocation and human well-being.”
As she spoke, the clouds above University Hall lifted to warm the podium, and students and guests pointed to a rainbow that formed above the stage on which she was speaking.
On the eve of its 250th anniversary, the University must reaffirm its dedication to scholarship and remain attuned to global problems as it invests in the future, Paxson said.
She concluded by remarking on the connection between the possibilities of the future and the understanding of the past. Brown is an “institution perpetually involved in the process of renewing ourselves,” she said.