Brown University’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, published in 2016, states that “All Brown students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religious and political views, and other aspects of their identities, are accepted because of their enormous potential as scholars and leaders.” But our University’s motto — “In Deo Speramus,” meaning “In God we hope,” — does not reflect this commitment. In order to demonstrate our commitment to religious acceptance, and to honor our institution’s history, the University should change our official motto to “Speramus,” meaning “We hope.”
Brown University, and the state of Rhode Island, have a long history of religious freedom and tolerance. In 1636, Roger Williams settled in Rhode Island after fleeing religious persecution in Massachusetts. He was soon joined by other religious dissidents, like Ann Hutchinson. Rhode Island quickly became a haven for religious minorities — Baptists, Quakers and Jews. In 1663, Rhode Island adopted a charter that guaranteed religious freedom for all before any other state. Thus, it should be no surprise that at its founding in 1764, Brown University, then called Rhode Island College, “opened its doors to students without regard to religious affiliation.” This commitment to inclusion stood in stark contrast to the policies of peer universities like Yale, Princeton and Harvard, which were founded primarily to educate clergy.
The motto “In Deo Speramus” was not part of our institution’s original symbols or phrases. The University did not adopt the motto until 1834, when President Wayland commissioned a new seal — the seal we still use today. Unlike the old seal, which depicted a “temple of science,” our seal includes Christian imagery in the form of a red cross. The University’s adoption of the seal and motto in 1834 was antithetical to our founding values of religious inclusion and freedom.
The motto “In Deo Speramus” is not only contradictory to our founding values but also undermines our contemporary commitment to diversity and inclusion. According to a 2013 Herald poll, 19 percent of students identified as atheist, 19 percent as agnostic, 3 percent as Bhuddist and 2 percent as Hindu — meaning nearly half of the students did not identify with a monotheistic religion. If we are to be an institution that accepts “all Brown students regardless … of their religious views,” we need a motto that represents all students, regardless of their religious views. Changing our motto to “Speramus” — “We hope”— would reflect our values of community and inclusion.
Changing the motto would not require a significant financial investment because the University no longer includes the motto when depicting the University seal. Changing the motto would not require re-designing Brown’s athletic apparel or letterhead. Instead, the University could simply publish a press release, edit the University’s website and update Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Changing the motto would not necessarily require the University to remove the motto from the few places where it is still depicted. As long as the University publicly commits to a new motto, the depictions of the old motto could be grandfathered in.
Perhaps the University is more concerned with upsetting alums than financial costs. Maybe this is why the University has quietly removed most references to the motto without officially changing it. It is easy to imagine some alums who angrily respond to the change. But we shouldn’t let fear of controversy stop us from taking actions that align with our values. The University should publicly embrace religious acceptance by changing our motto to something that better reflects our values.
The motto “Speramus” would do this. “Speramus” preserves the tradition of having a Latin motto. It also mirrors Rhode Island’s one word motto, “Hope.” Keeping first person plural conjugation elicits feelings of community. And most importantly, this new motto does not exclude those who don’t subscribe to a monotheistic religion. Every student — regardless of whether they believe in one god, many gods or no god at all — deserves a motto that represents them.
Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.