Committee appointed to consider center for study of slavery

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A committee to design a major academic initiative related to slavery and justice – one of the first steps toward implementing the University’s plan to make amends for its historic ties to slavery – was announced by the University today.

The nine-member committee will be chaired by Professor of Economics Glenn Loury and includes three members of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which released its report last October after nearly three years of deliberation.

The University pledged in February to undertake “a major teaching and research initiative on slavery and justice” in response to that report, which detailed how some of the University’s early benefactors profited from the slave trade. A center for the study of slavery was a central recommendation of the report.

The committee’s written charge from Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 calls for it to familiarize itself with the resources available at Brown and “relevant centers and institutes at peer institutes” and recommend a course of action by the end of the Fall 2007 semester.

Deputy Provost Vincent Tompkins ’85, who will provide staff support to the committee, said the committee comprises faculty and staff with expertise in the area.

“That’s a fairly typical situation where you have a committee that is thinking about recommending a new research and teaching initiative,” he said.

The University’s February response stopped short of calling for the creation of a new center, instead saying that “whether (the initiative) results in a new center or the significant enlargement of an existing and coordinated set of programs should be determined through (the recommendation) process.”

The possibility of creating a new center is not off the table, Tompkins said. But, he added, “I think that the charge was very clear that the first thing the committee ought to do is familiarize itself with what centers and departments and resources already exist that can be brought to bear” on issues of slavery and justice at Brown.

The three members who served on the original University steering committee are Associate Professor of History James Campbell, Professor of History Evelyn Hu-DeHart, who is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, and Professor of History Omer Bartov. Campbell chaired the original committee.

Bartov wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that he will be an “absentee” member of the committee for the rest of this semester, which he is spending at the American Academy in Berlin. He accepted a place on the committee despite his absence because he considers himself a major supporter of the steering committee’s recommendation that Brown create an academic center, he wrote.

“It seemed to be reasonable, when the provost asked me, to agree to be on a committee that would specifically look into this issue and to make sure that this initiative would really be carried through without being watered down,” Bartov added.

The other members of the committee are Associate Professor of Political Science Sharon Krause, Professor of Philosophy Charles Larmore, Professor of Africana Studies Tricia Rose PhD’93, Professor of Africana Studies John Edgar Wideman P’91 and Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library.

Widmer, the only member of the committee who is not a faculty member, said when he was a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton, he worked with Clinton on articulating “the problems of how the United States should come to terms with the legacy of slavery.”

The John Carter Brown Library is also one of the Brown resources the committee may choose to focus on, Widmer said, calling it “one of the best places on Earth to study the comparative history of slavery” and noting that the original committee did a good deal of its own research there.

Other existing programs slated for consideration, according to the University response, include the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization, the Department of History and the Department of Africana Studies – which was also specifically targeted for enhancement by the University response.

Kertzer appointed the committee, but both his office and the Office of President will coordinate its work, Tompkins said. Simmons crafted the University’s response and has since played a primary role in explaining it.

Once the committee has concluded its work, according to its charge, “a panel of external scholars” will be convened to review the committee’s findings and make suggestions to Simmons and Kertzer, who will then make final recommendations, some of which may require faculty approval.

The committee has not yet met, but its first meeting should occur “about two-and-a-half weeks from now,” Tompkins said.

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