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University News

Ruth Simmons inaugurates Slavery and Justice Center

President emerita speaks about role of universities in exposing global injustices

Senior Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2014

Former President Ruth Simmons spoke on the role of universities in recognizing historical and current civil and human rights violations at the inauguration of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice Friday afternoon.

Her speech, entitled “Confronting Historic Wrongs: A University’s Dilemma,” commemorated the opening of the center in its new location at 94 Waterman St., where it moved from Alumnae Hall in August.

The center is a major legacy of Simmons’ tenure. In 2003, she formed the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which subsequently recommended the creation of the center in its 2006 report.

“We owe to ourselves a full and true account of historic slavery in all its forms,” Simmons said, adding that the cumulative effects of slavery are more extensive and affect more people than the transatlantic slave trade alone ever did.

As the University celebrates its 250th anniversary, it is imperative that community members “reveal” to themselves a “true account of history,” she said, adding that slavery has far from disappeared.

If institutions, individuals and journalists take it upon themselves to exercise integrity when deciphering and presenting these issues, “whitewashing will ultimately fail,” Simmons said, adding that scholars have the duty to expose racism and slavery.

“Historic wrongs have a long reach” into the present day, Simmons said, and their effects “can and will not be denied by the heirs of these types of atrocities.” De-emphasizing the memory and repercussions of injustice is traumatic for victims and their descendants, she added.

Simmons spoke adamantly against racial profiling, stating that the practice is “no different than what blacks experienced in the days of Jim Crow” to thunderous applause and cheers from the audience. “Profiling, and its consequences, is a civil and moral wrong,” she said, though data gives police officers grounds to “hide behind” when enacting these policies.

Referencing the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Simmons said the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson is a “textbook case of how historic wrongs attach themselves to community events.”

As evidence is released about the circumstances of Brown’s death, people across the nation are becoming angry and skeptical of the demonstrators’ rage, she said. But the circumstances can only be understood if the “cloud of suspicion” under which citizens in Ferguson live is recognized, she said. A discussion of the events in Ferguson can segue into an examination of the economic effects of profiling, she added.

Empathy is difficult for individuals who have not experienced a situation, Simmons continued. There is a “dual dilemma” in which those who are treated unfairly by society and those who are not must transcend their differences and work together to eliminate inequalities.

This is where universities come in, Simmons said: Stepping away from bias and corruption, the university has an “obligation to society.” Universities must not be afraid to challenge injustices in the world as long as they do so with “integrity and independence.” Silence and a desire to take the least controversial route will leave them “lowered in the esteem of society,” she said.

Simmons said despite citizens’ desires, governments often cannot agree on sensible responses to human rights issues. And even within university governance there are problems, she said.

Harvard’s administration’s decision to sign a United Nations-approved code of responsible investment in April has made apparent the extent to which universities must set an example, as faculty members and students think about the destructive consequences to the environment and what can be done about humans destroying the earth, Simmons said.

And when universities are approached by hundreds of interest groups calling for action, they are in a unique position to accomplish goals, Simmons said. Students learn to “form intellectual opinions on important moral issues” and are encouraged to be courageous leaders, she said. Students and institutions must face the challenge of standing against “those on the wrong side of moral issues,” she added.

Universities are also forced to confront their own “shortcomings” and serve as examples to others dealing with similar conflicts, she said.

As for Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, to “rewrite the history of the University founding in a more truthful light was itself an achievement,” Simmons said. The center will continue to investigate the “consequences of slavery” and work to “address the damage done by human and civil rights violations,” she added.

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  1. Beta Schmeta says:

    So here’s to another 200 years before Brown University recognizes that Ruth Simmons and Chris Paxson have neglected victims of Brown University rapists.

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