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Editorial: Power of a portrait

For many prospective students, one of the spaces on Brown’s campus that stands out most prominently during tours is the portrait gallery in Sayles Hall, often described by new first-years still figuring out which building is which as “that room with all the old white guys.” It seems almost comical, the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the faces represented in the room. Fortunately, over winter break, the room became just a little less white and male with the addition of former President Ruth Simmons’ portrait to the gallery.


The addition of Simmons’ portrait to the gallery is worthy of celebration for many reasons, chief among them the strength of the presidency that the portrait represents. President Simmons continues to be a figure held in high esteem around campus. She was the first black president of any Ivy League school and the first female president of Brown. While she served as president, she started many successful initiatives, including making domestic, first-year admission need-blind, increasing financial support for students and strengthening the University’s dedication to diversity. In 2011 she received the Rosenberger medal, the highest honor that Brown can bestow.


But in this editorial we want to specifically recognize the importance of visual representation for students who do not fit the mold of those who have historically held power in both American and Brunonian history: namely, women of color. It can be alienating to walk through a hall of portraits of individuals celebrated for their influence on the University’s history and see no one who looks like you. While Brown’s faculty continues to work toward emphasizing the importance of diversity at Brown, including steps like those outlined in Christina Paxson’s diversity initiative and the creation of the new all-staff social justice retreat, imagery like the sea of white in Sayles is a constant reminder of just how exclusive positions of power at the University have been for the majority of its history. While Simmons’ portrait is just one of 37 hanging in Sayles, it matters. It is a step. Hopefully, as we continue as an institution to move further away from solely white, male leadership, the portraits in Sayles will reflect that.


Having her portrait in Sayles is just the latest in a series of Simmons’ glass-ceiling-busting accomplishments, for which we all owe her gratitude. We all need role models with whom we can identify in order to be able to visualize ourselves achieving whatever it is we want to achieve. Having one more portrait in Sayles that is not a white man is something worth celebrating.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Emma Axelrod ’18 and Emma Jerzyk ’17, and its members, Eben Blake ’17, Aranshi Kumar ’17 and Leeron Lempel ’19. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

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