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U. draws inspiration from peers for 250th

Brown’s engagement with R.I. and international community makes for distinctive celebration

Though Brown celebrated its 250th anniversary last weekend, the University is a baby compared to some of its peer institutions. Princeton commemorated its 250th in 1996, while Harvard kicked off its 375th anniversary festivities in 2011.

The University studied and learned from its peers’ past birthday bashes, said Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations.

Despite looking to other schools, the University maintained the “Brown difference” with its own distinctive components, said Eve Ornstedt, executive director of the Office of the 250th Anniversary.


The Brown difference

From fireworks displays to giant cakes, the 250th anniversary steering committee considered many components of previous anniversary celebrations. During the planning stages, committee members  visited several peer universities, including Yale, Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston College and others, to see how they had approached their celebrations, Quinn said.

The committee was particularly inspired by Yale’s 300th anniversary celebration in 2001, which was open to members of the New Haven community, said Russell Carey, executive vice president for planning and policy.

“We were oriented in that direction, since we’re commemorating the charter and the founding, which are very much community events,” Carey said. “But certainly, some of their experiences and the positive reaction they got helped inspire some of the planning.”

Symposia and lectures are common elements of many anniversary celebrations, Ornstedt said. “Everybody had a cake,” she added.

To make the University’s celebrations distinctive, the steering committee made a point to showcase students and engage as much of the community as possible, Quinn said. The committee integrated students, faculty members, staff members and community organizations in Providence and Rhode Island into the planning process, she added.

“It seems every institution also determined a way to make them distinctively their own,” Ornstedt said. “Everyone invited the community, in some way or another, but Brown is basically inviting the state of Rhode Island to campus.”

The University also invited public middle school students from across the state to take part in the festivities, Quinn said. Five to 10 middle school students from each of the state’s more than 300 public schools converged on campus for the celebration this weekend. A commemorative text often accompanies universities’ birthday fetes.

“Everybody had a book of some kind produced,” Ornstedt said.

Unlike peer institutions’ anniversary books, Brown’s celebratory reader will be a compilation of works by 50 Brown alum writers, including Marilynne Robinson, Lois Lowry and Jeffrey Eugenides, Ornstedt said. The book will be released March 17, she added.

Similar to Princeton and MIT, the University also integrated social media into its anniversary by launching a unique website and webcasting major events, Ornstedt said.

“We have the benefit of technology that wasn’t around in 1996 when Princeton was celebrating or even in 2001 when Yale was,” Ornstedt said. Through the webcasts and websites, “the global community can make comments and be a part of (the celebration), front and center.”

The University’s objective, like those of other institutions, is to honor its history while also focusing on its present and future, Quinn said.

The anniversary is “a great opportunity to engage the campus, the broader community, locally and globally, and talk about things that are happening now,” Quinn said. “We have President Paxson, we have a new strategic plan that’s very ambitious and exciting, and as we engage the past, we hope that people will learn more about what’s happening now as well.”


A Crimson celebration

At Harvard’s 375th anniversary, spectactors flocked to Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as well as a parade featuring floats created by the undergraduate houses and graduate schools, said Jackie O’Neill, university marshal at Harvard. The yearlong “family birthday party” also included a host of other performers, presenters and speakers, she said.

“There was rain like I’d never seen, but it turned out to be a fun event nonetheless,” O’Neill recalled. “It was like Woodstock in the Yard.”

Harvard’s celebratory cake, capable of feeding 4,000 people, was made by Harvard alum Joanne Chang. After graduating with degrees in applied mathematics and economics, Chang pursued baking and currently owns two restaurants in the Boston area and four “Flour Bakery” shops, O’Neill said.

The birthday cake was created in the shape of an H and was red velvet in honor of the school color.

A special commencement ceremony marked the end of the celebration, O’Neill said. The commencement included anniversary-specific elements, including the presence of all living Harvard presidents and a series of performances, she said.

O’Neill, who visited Brown’s campus before Harvard’s anniversary celebration, was inspired by Campus Dance during Commencement. Harvard held its own version of the dance for its 375th ceremony, including music from outside band groups.

“It wasn’t exactly the same, but the idea was, like at your campus, to be all-inclusive and have something that everyone could attend,” O’Neill said.

The motto

Princeton changed its unofficial motto on the day its 250th anniversary kicked off in 1996, said Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary of Princeton.

Like Brown, Princeton developed a steering committee to oversee planning for the celebration. The committee included faculty members, senior administrators, alum leaders and members of the board of trustees, Durkee said. The planning process took almost four years, and the celebration lasted 18 months.

The main event was a talk by author Toni Morrison, who taught at Princeton at the time. A “birthday party” celebration was then held on campus, in which students, faculty members, alums and community members were welcome to attend, Durkee said.

During the 18-month celebration, Princeton also hosted a lecture series on Princeton’s history, sent a 250th anniversary calendar to the Princeton community and commissioned a movie, a history book and an illustrated coffee table book, Durkee said.

Like Brown, Princeton capped its anniversary’s launch with a fireworks display, he said. The display was broadcast across the country to alum groups in 20 cities.

In its planning process, Princeton looked at what its peer institutions had done, though there were only three older universities at the time, Durkee said. The university also examined its 150th and 200th anniversary celebrations to see if any previous ideas should be replicated, he added.

Steering committee members were particularly inspired by Princeton’s 150th anniversary, when future President Woodrow Wilson, who was a faculty member at the time, created Princeton’s previous unofficial motto, “Princeton, in the nation’s service.” To commemorate Princeton’s development since the 150th anniversary into an international university, committee members decided to expand the motto to “Princeton, in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

“For me, it’s a nice anecdote that says we did look back at our history and we decided to build on that history,” Durkee said. “We are a university with a distinguished history, as is Brown, and it was nice for people to think about the origins of the university, how much it had changed over 250 years and what may be coming next.”


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