Ingber ’15: The value of President Simmons’ voice

Opinions Columnist

The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice is bursting onto the scene this semester, organizing various educational events and programs that have already reached wide audiences on campus. In coordination with the University’s 250th celebration, the center has shed light on important themes surrounding the founding and development of this university since 1764.

In more recent years, these themes have been the subject of increasing debate, and that debate has in turn changed the perception of racial issues the University faces. Various lectures have connected race to discussions over the environment and federal grant money, while others, such as the Ferguson teach-in, have tackled modern-day issues of race directly. But on Oct. 24, the center will have its biggest event to date: a grand opening and dedication, featuring a keynote address delivered by former President Ruth Simmons.

My goal here is not to editorialize on the significance of race in the University’s development but rather to consider the importance of Simmons’ return to campus as it relates to the topics of race and freedom of expression. It has been a few years since Simmons’ last hurrah, and it goes without saying that a lot has happened on campus — especially surrounding issues of race.

What is the role for a past president on campus? Especially one who is extremely popular amongst students? As Simmons’ last batch of first-years, the class of 2015, inches slowly toward graduation, will her mystical aura start to fade? This question is especially tricky to answer given the vastly contrasting styles and personalities of Presidents Simmons and Paxson. More than a year ago, I wrote a piece outlining the need for the Brown community to allow President Christina Paxson to impact our university without being compared side-by-side with Simmons. I still believe this whole-heartedly. But as we welcome Simmons back to campus, we must fully appreciate her legacy and her continued ability to impact this campus.

Simmons did great things for Brown. She expanded the faculty, created the Office of Institutional Diversity and physically connected parts of campus with various walkways and paths — something I believe to be hugely important to Brown’s contiguity and cohesiveness. Her hugs were magical and her prose poignant. Her words carried more weight than I could have imagined as a first-year listening to her convocation address. Importantly, she was an exceptional leader who broke down walls as the first African-American Ivy League president and the first female leader of Brown.

But after the events surrounding the Ray Kelly lecture last fall unfolded, I was disappointed with Simmons’ silence. Between the swastikas drawn on the event’s posters and the actual occurrences inside List 120 that day, I expected more from a past president whose legacy has very much centered on defending freedom of expression. In 2001, as a new president, Simmons delivered quite possibly the most inspiring speech I have ever come across. After a controversy surrounding an advertisement that ran in The Herald, which many believed contained unacceptable racial content, Simmons delivered a convocation address in which she affirmed the importance of the exchange of ideas, even when those ideas lead to discomfort.

“By entering this university, each of you has also become a guardian of free expression. Your task will be onerous, I’m sure, for you will be tempted many times in your life to close off the route to free expression because there will be brigands who are adept at using this path for nefarious purposes,” she said. “If we are to safeguard our current freedom and the means to restore that freedom when it is wrested from us, the path must remain passable, even when the dishonorable must pass upon it also.”

Where was this sentiment last fall? If anybody in University history has the authority and legitimacy to weigh in on the Ray Kelly incident, it would be Ruth Simmons. But she was nowhere to be found — or heard. Her commitment to free inquiry has not faded — something evidenced by her commencement address last spring at Smith College, in which she harshly criticized the segment of the Smith student body that forced International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde to back away from her commitment to speak at graduation. If Simmons truly wants to have a lasting legacy at Brown, she must continue speaking up for the rights and freedoms she so admirably defended while in office. Her guardianship of this right, to pull from her speech, did not end when she left her official post.

Right now, we need Simmons more than ever. As Ray Kelly is once again the talk of the town, demonstrated by Paxson’s recent report and Professor of Biology Ken Miller’s most recent column, Simmons has a unique opportunity to use her platform to uphold the freedom of expression she cherished while at the University. While I understand that she may not want to infringe on Paxson’s administrative responsibilities, it remains true that her voice is valued and respected on this campus.

Coming to terms with the University’s deep connection to the slave trade is quite difficult for the many members of this community who idealize this university and everything that it offers. That acknowledgement of responsibility is a crucial step for the University. And so is a united front from two University leaders with regard to the need to keep open the path of free expression, for it is that path that allows better arguments to prevail and truth to be grappled with. Simmons knows better than anyone the value of facing these challenges head-on and handling the discomfort maturely in order to move forward.

After a quiet few years, I think it is time for Simmons to remind us how important it is to confront opinions that infuriate or challenge us. I think it is time for Simmons to echo these words from that timeless speech: “I won’t ask you to embrace someone who offends your humanity through the exercise of free speech. But I would ask you to understand that the price of your own freedom is permitting the expression of such opinions.” I cannot think of a better time to hear this sentiment than at the dedication of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.


Zachary Ingber ’15 can be reached at 

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  1. since i started here the number of columns written by white boys about how important it is that they not be silenced is, frankly, mindboggling. who is silencing all the white boys? obviously not the cops. enjoy living a generally awesome life, ingber.

    • “White boys” because the campus is overriden with 12 year olds? You want to police the kind of speech had on campus? Then start using the right words.

    • TheRationale says:

      Ah yes, because freedom doesn’t apply to white people. I can only imagine how much education it must take to develop such a nuanced racist mindset.

  2. More double talk by Zach Ingber. Has he ever confronted the Hillel about its one sided portrayal of Israel, the dispossession of Palestinians, the racist demonstrations in Israel during Gaza war. Never.

    Ingber wants to portray himself as some kinda doyen of free and open speech while he is part and parcel of an organization (Hillel) that openly suppresses such speech. Hypocrisy much Zach ?

  3. Timothy Johnson says:

    ….especially, as you know, when she breathes heavily.

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