University News

As Simmons departs, S&J plans remain stagnant

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2012

The University has offered an internal candidate the position of inaugural director for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice after its second final candidate in five years declined to take the offer last semester. The candidate’s name will not be released until the decision is finalized. 

The creation of the center – which will be devoted to researching the history of slavery and modern injustice – was one of many recommendations put forward in a report by the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2006. The committee also recommended creating a fund dedicated to improving educational outcomes for children in Providence and creating a memorial to commemorate the University’s connection to the slave trade. While a sculptor was selected in February to design the memorial, donations to the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence have stalled. As President Ruth Simmons – who was instrumental in initiating the slavery and justice discussion on campus – prepares to depart this summer, many of the recommendations in the report have yet to be fully realized.


History of the report

Simmons’ interest in discussing the University’s historic ties to the slave trade was evident early in her presidency, said Jim Campbell, former associate professor of American studies and chair of the steering committee. During her first Convocation speech, Simmons “discussed at length” the issue of reparations for slavery, a hot-button topic at the time, Campbell said. At the time, universities across the country were afraid to consider the issue due to fears of legal action or incurring the national spotlight, Campbell said.

“What most universities did in this circumstance was they just ducked,” he said. “But Ruth took exactly the opposite approach. She basically said, ‘This is a teaching moment.'”

Simmons wrote a letter in April 2003 inviting members of the University community to join a committee dedicated to researching the University’s historic ties to slavery. The 17 professors, deans and students selected by Simmons formed a steering committee, which spent the next two years meeting, researching and developing the report published.

While the report mainly outlined the University’s long-standing connection to slavery, it also recommended initiatives like creating the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, establishing a fund to help the children of Providence and developing more seminars that discussed racial issues. But Campbell wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald that the most positive effect of the report was uncovering previously little-known history.

“Probably the most obvious outcome of the committee’s work was simply providing the Brown community with a richer, more complex understanding of the University’s history, an understanding that encompassed aspects that had previously been neglected or suppressed,” Campbell wrote.


Lack of progress

But six years after the report’s release, few of these recommendations have been successfully integrated. 

The University offered the center’s directorship to a “pretty well-known professor from Harvard” last semester, but he turned it down, said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15. Simmons said the University was forced to withdraw its offer to this candidate in the fall “in the interest of moving ahead with the center.” Prior to that, the University offered the position to “a notable historian” but after accepting the position, he later turned it down due to personal reasons, Simmons said. The University decided that rather than starting a third external search, it would be best to look for an internal candidate, Schlissel said.

“It’s taken far too long to be able to act on what was a very good idea coming from the Slavery and Justice report several years ago,” Schlissel said. He declined to name the internal candidate or that individual’s department but said the University hopes the candidate will commit before the end of the semester. 

Simmons said she would have liked to conduct an internal search from the beginning. 

“I always thought we could start this very well with someone who’s already at Brown, and I must say I’m happy that it evolved to this point because that will be the best way to get started,” she said.

Campbell said universities tend to move slowly when enacting major projects, so the lack of a director for the center is not unusual. After the committee released the report, another committee was issued to discuss the center specifically, which took time, Campbell said. 

“Recognizing that Brown is an institution that has existed for two and a half centuries and that we hope will exist for at least two and a half more, six years doesn’t seem so long a time,” Campbell said. “I know that the slow pace at which universities move can sometimes be frustrating to students, but it’s not an entirely bad thing.”

“Things take a long time in university life because of the processes that we use,” Simmons said. “People want to have an open process that includes lots of people and that is democratic and that is careful. Invariably, they are very impatient with the results because when you do that things take longer.”

The Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence has also seen little progress since its inception. The fund has only raised $1.26 million of its $10 million goal, said Joan Sorensen ’72 P’06 P’06, a Corporation member and member of the committee that oversees the fund. 

Chancellor Emeritus Artemis Joukowsky ’55 P’87 said donating to the fund has been overshadowed by larger initiatives such as the Campaign for Academic Enrichment, which raised $1.61 billion over the course of five years.

“That’s what happened – you come up with a whole long list of wonderful things you like to do, and some of them get left behind,” Joukowsky said.

“I just think it hasn’t been out in the limelight,” Sorensen said, adding that it was expected to take a long time from its inception. 

“I’m mystified by it actually,” Simmons said. “I thought it was an exciting project.” Simmons said she feels it will take a “commitment from the community” and a different marketing campaign in order to increase donations. 

“I’ve said to the University I will do whatever I can once I step down to help with fundraising,” she said.

Joukowsky said the committee is hopeful that it will reach its goal within the next five years, but that “it’s impossible to put a date up.” He added that though it has been a struggle, the fund committee is persevering and will continue to seek donations.

“We have never given up,” he said. “It is a permanent commitment of the University to raise that money in order to show our commitment to a population that was in some ways disadvantaged by the legacy of slavery.”


Simmons’ legacy

While Simmons is preparing to step down at the end of the school year, she said she is not in a rush to complete the recommendations before that point.

“I feel a sense of urgency about getting a director who will have all the right experience and energy and vision to get the center off to a good start, and whenever that happens will be good,” Simmons said. “There’s no urgency at all.”

Few people see the extended timeline as a dent on Simmons’ legacy.

“I think her legacy is enormous,” Schlissel said. “She’s basically changed Brown’s level of aspirations and sense of the importance of its mission and relevance to other universities. I think this is just a tiny fraction of the overall impact she’s had at Brown.”

Simmons’ departure before the center’s completion does not diminish the impact of the original proposal, wrote former Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 in an email to The Herald.

“There is no reason that the delay should detract from the ambitions of President Simmons’ initial proposal for the center,” Kertzer wrote. “I expect this will be one of many important legacies that President Simmons leaves to Brown.”

The report has also influenced other universities, Simmons said. 

“The real benefit of the process frankly has been the visibility it has given Brown because, for the most part, Brown is credited with spurring activities at different universities and institutions related to reconciling their history with slavery and civil rights,” Simmons said. “By far the most important benefit of the report has been that. I think the campus still understands relatively little about the impact of the report across the country and around the world.”

Emory University also had discussions about its connection to the slave trade a few years before the University’s report, said Emory Provost Earl Lewis. The Transforming Community Project, a five-year program that involved community lectures and guest speakers, culminated with a conference that invited Simmons as a keynote speaker, Lewis said.

“I do think that the response to the conference last year indicates that there are quite a number of campuses that share an interest in how institutions have been shaped by their early connection to slavery,” said Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president at Emory.

Though a director has not yet been named, Simmons said she is optimistic about the center. She added that a physical space has been identified but denied giving specifics. But constructing a new building is “an enormous undertaking,” and the scope of the center does not require a separate building, she said.

Simmons said the center’s focus will be decided once the director is named. She said she is not sure what role she will have, if any, at the center, and that the decision is entirely up to the inaugural director.

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Simmons said of having a potential role in the center. “I will do whatever I can to help the center.”


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