Sweren ’15: Birthday blues

Guest Columnist
Monday, March 10, 2014

This weekend, the University began the 250th celebration of the College’s founding. At the center of the celebration, a 3 percent replica of University Hall stood poised to feed 1,400 attendees. There were speakers, pyrotechnics, buttons, bands and little spigots that filled cups with hot chocolate. And did I mention the cake, the 650-pound, 5-by-2-by-3-foot custom-built cake? Yet despite the celebration’s supposed focus on Brown’s history, this weekend failed to place center stage, let alone address, a long track record of historical negligence.

In 2003, then-President Ruth Simmons formed a committee to investigate the University’s involvement in slavery and the slave trade. The 2006 report from the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice showed the University’s deep involvement in “crimes against humanity.” A subsequent 2009 Report of Commissions on Memorials made recommendations to the University for a commemorative site, and in 2012, the Corporation selected Martin Puryear as the chief artist charged with designing the memorial.

Ask any Brown student about the above reports, meetings and decisions, and the responses will reveal a startling fact: The University has done little to help educate the student body beyond the original work and has instead approached this challenging topic strictly behind the scenes, as if these academic exercises themselves were proclamations of success.

The slavery and justice report states, “Our primary task was to examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to … ‘provide factual information and critical perspectives to deepen understanding’ and enrich debate on an issue that had aroused great public passion but little constructive public dialogue.”

In 2012, The Herald published an article by Sydney Ember titled “The forgotten report.” She interviewed students, professors and the president, gathering information about the report and Brown community members’ response to it. But when Ember herself tried to procure a hard copy, she likened the experience to “a wild goose chase.” Most copies — nearly a thousand — are held off-site, four miles from Brown’s campus, though digital copies are freely accessible online. Ember quoted Professor of History Evelyn Hu-Dehart as saying, “This is a living document. But it’s dead.” Hu-Dehart served on the original steering committee.

Where did the University go wrong?

In almost every above instance, University officials barred undergraduates from partaking in the conversation.

What upsets me is not the celebration of Brown’s 250th, per se, but the framing of it — the missed opportunity for education, progressive communication and a productive means by which the University finally engages in a long-overdue public conversation. Even if the report were readily available and not stowed away in some off-site facility, even if the University had actually installed some statue or memorial by “Brown’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2014,” as the University’s website explicitly stated as its 2012 plan, it would not be sufficient. This issue demands active public consideration, not just a few Band-Aids that falsely allay the University’s guilt. What the University did and said it would do have not lived up to the timely standard that such an issue demands.

During the Friday night celebration, I saw no mention of  “Pero,” “Mary Young’s Negro Man,” “Earle’s Negro” and “Abraham,” the four black, enslaved men who helped to build College Edifice — now University Hall. Nor did I hear any undergraduate, let alone alum, discuss the effects the roughly 30 original Corporation members had on the future of Rhode Island, Providence and Brown by either owning or captaining slave ships. Instead, I heard six minutes and 54 seconds of oohs, ahs and cheers, 2,500 percussive pops and a plethora of individuals eating cake, completely ignorant of the implications of their celebration.

And worst of all, it’s not even their fault.

The University must stop its trend of isolative decision-making and involve the student body in the productive politics of future planning.

The University has continued its habit of bureaucratic secrecy and insulation and thus approached an educational opportunity tepidly and with a receptive student body at arm’s length. What remains is a community just as far from mending a scar as it was prior to the report. It is up to the University, in the coming year, to include the community in this discussion. One hopes the report is made public in hard form — bound, published and placed in our libraries for reading and conversation. A statue or memorial does not serve in place of conversation, though a necessary and commendable step it might be.

Simmons wrote in a 2004 Boston Globe op-ed that “understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy. But then, it doesn’t have to be.”

If only the student body could have taken part in the difficult conversations that make a celebration of Brown’s 250th worthwhile. If only the celebration could have been framed in such a way that acknowledged historical wrongdoing alongside our success.



Evan Sweren ’15 is in his third year at Brown.

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  1. Kevin Carty says:

    I think we should assign the report, potentially along with Henry Merritt Wriston’s piece on the University College, as summer reading instead of the books they assign now.

  2. If you wanted to participate in a “long-overdue public conversation”, you could have done so: the University was providing funding to student groups to host whatever events they wanted during the weekend. This reads like less of a critique of the University’s response to its history, and more a complaint about the University not involving the neglected undergraduates in every itty bitty step of the planning and decision processes.

    Also: “it’s only online, I can’t easily get printed copies” – online is almost categorically more accessible than having to check it out of a library…? If you want a printed copy, acquire it online, and _print it out_.

    • Seems like you missed something if you think that the idea of funding student groups is a solution for student participation. I agree with Mr. Sweren that true input involves students at the beginning of university planning activates and allows participation throughout the process.

      • Interesting article says:

        Posting an online document in a low-trafficked section of a website hardly seems to replace robust public discourse. I appreciate the writer’s contention that the document should be made obvious (e.g. Apparent to someone walking into the library) versus simply available to someone with a pre-existing interest in reading it. Hopefully this op-ed can spark further dialogue

  3. With or without student participation, it’s a shame that the University decided to celebrate 250 years without addressing or confronting its darker moments. It seems that Brown is eager to dig into dining services and snow removal but not its own past.

  4. This op-ed doesn’t say anything. The U’s birthday party was as good a time as any for us to examine our past, that’s true, but the fact that you feel like the Slavery and Justice report is not well-known around campus is ridiculous. It’s one of the more well-known published pieces of writing among the student body.

    What you are criticizing is the larger state of University governance. If you wanted more students to work toward the fulfillment of the Committee’s recommendations, you should replace Paxson with an undergraduate president and let phe deal with things. Currently, our tuition moneys are flooding into the administration’s pockets so that they will be able to fulfill the recommendations set out by the committee. Here is how they were doing in 2011:

    Also, two undergrads and one grad student sat on the original committee. The rest of the committee were professors whose teaching and research focuses on history, ethnicity, law, policy, etc., especially re: slavery and other historical injustices committed against Persons of Color. Students were critical to the report, but, more importantly, professors and historians with actual relevant experience and scholarship in the topic have been involved in the process since Day 1.

    By the way, Mr. Sweren, the Internet has been around for more than you probably have by now. If you attend Brown, chances are that you have swipe access into the Rockerfeller or the Sciences Library. Once you have entered, you can probably log into a computer in one of the computer clusters (my favorite is the SciLi basement) and click open a browser — I recommend Google Chrome or Safari. At that point, you may be able to cut short your wild goose chase and click on this link:

    • Thanks for sharing these links. I agree that there are some students already aware of the Slavery and Justice report, and that’s great; but the fact is, there’s a big difference between a “well-known published piece of writing” and a “well-read published piece of writing.” I’d argue that the report is the former. Yes, it’s true: anyone can find the report entombed in the Brown University website. But the 250th would have been a great place to have a public forum, and to reach those people who didn’t or don’t have that curiosity or compunction or time to put down their massive amounts of homework and research Slavery and Justice on their own.

      Perhaps leaving these needling historical points out of the 250th was intentional. Perhaps the University and the 3(!) students who sat on the original committee made the active choice to divert focus with fun-filled diversions. Perhaps we’ve already done enough by posting a report. But I can’t help but think that a major University-wide celebration isn’t just targeting the student body; it’s targeting the world outside; it’s shaping public image. So, as much as I appreciate that everyone on the committee was committed to righting historical injustices, and as grateful that I am that they’ve been doing good work elsewhere, in this instance, it just didn’t translate beyond their closed doors. And for me, that was the problem.

    • I am not sure that your response says anything.
      Your last paragraph is just nasty and rude.
      Responses and forums should promote conversation, and not be riddled with insults and sarcastic humor.

  5. Th bigger picture issue is how poorly the information on the 250th celebration grants was disseminated, or even the 250th in general. I mean with all the mailers we get asking for money, one would think that we’d get an actual invitation to the 250th, you know something to make us feel just a bit special? Instead, it’s a really poorly formatted email that looks like every other email the administration sends out.

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