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Convocation keynote address discusses ‘new normal’ in Brown ethics

University’s 257th Opening Convocation is first to occur entirely online

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2020

In his keynote address at the University’s 257th Opening Convocation, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Andre C. Willis discussed the “new normal” in daily life and ethics during this time of global unrest a new normal reflected in the University’s first-ever convocation to occur entirely online.

While first-year students did not get to walk through the Van Wickle gates this fall, over 1,100 viewers worldwide tuned into a live-streamed convocation on the University’s Youtube channel. On the stream, President Christina Paxson P’19 opened the 2020-2021 school year and welcomed 813 doctoral and master’s students, 144 medical students, six resumed undergraduate education students, 62 transfer students and 1,769 first-year undergraduates.

By the spring, Paxson hopes that “all of Brown’s newest students will have the opportunity to walk through the Van Wickle Gates, and that by then it will be safe to have another welcoming convocation on the Main Green,” she said.

In her opening address, Paxson cited the demand for education in facing today’s challenges, such as “racial injustice, socioeconomic inequality, climate change, political polarization, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic.” According to Paxson, “grappling with these challenges requires the concerted and thoughtful efforts of people from across disciplines.”

Paxson also emphasized the importance of applying historical context to present-day issues. “Our histories are imperfect and incomplete,” she said, referring to a “selective forgetting” furthered by people in positions of power that has impacted today’s consciousness.

Paxson said more complete information on the 20th-century influenza pandemic could have helped in preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic, and that narratives surrounding historical events such as the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment fail to recognize the experiences of Black, Native American, poor and immigrant voters who were still unable to vote.

As part of the University’s emphasis on highlighting the historical experiences of marginalized communities, all incoming first-year and transfer students will be reading the 2006 “Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice,” which was created by Brown faculty, students and administrators, Paxson said. Confronting Rhode Island and the University’s legacies of profiting from the slave trade requires a “renewed commitment” and the “work of decades,” Paxson said.

In Willis’ keynote address, he highlighted habits of mutuality, “shared, equal connections” and fallibilism (the ability to “change one’s mind”), in the process of moving forward as a University. “The gravity of this moment has compelled us as an institution to begin this year from a new ethical outlook, what I want to think of as the ‘new normal,’” he said. “It is our task to build on these ethical foundations.”

Willis further explained that today’s actions will define the University for future generations, citing some of the recent work done to confront legacies of racism and socioeconomic disparity. This work included the Aug. 19 decision to remove ‘Plantations’ from the University’s name, and the July 29 fulfillment of a 2007 commitment to support the Providence public schools with a permanent endowment of $10 million.

“One’s academic work simply cannot be fractured from the rest of their existence,” Willis said, specifying that the “effects of poverty, climate change, race hatred, gender inequality and violence against trans and queer people” are residually present aspects of today’s society.

Willis also emphasized the role of education in addressing violence against the Black community. For example, the discourse on Ebonics marked some as “deficient” in academic spaces, Willis said. Moreover, police brutality and the idea that “Black male bodies are to be feared or destroyed” has created “collective trauma” and requires effort and activism, Willis said. In times like these, “education cannot be either luxury or distraction,” he added.

In closing, Willis returned to the ideas of mutuality and fallibilism in creating a “new normal.” “When you hear someone longing for the familiarity of things to return as they were, I ask you to please help them qualify that statement,” Willis said. “Sure, I want to put COVID-19 behind us, but I don’t want to return to that normal.”

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