After more than a year of remote learning and restrictions on large gatherings, the University welcomed the class of 2025 in its fully in-person 258th Opening Convocation. The ceremony ushered in a new academic year in which the University intends to transition back to primarily in-person programming despite public health challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a speech to the Brown community, President Christina Paxson P’19 declared the 2021-22 academic year open, welcoming 1,058 doctoral and master’s students, 144 medical students, 10 Resumed Undergraduate Education students, 80 transfer students and 1,710 first-year undergraduate students. Paxson also noted that since not all members of the class of 2024 were able to walk through the Van Wickle Gates during last year’s convocation, those who had not yet done so joined the class of 2025 in passing through the gates this year.
During the ceremony, Paxson highlighted a section of the University’s charter titled “No Religious Tests,” which grants complete religious freedom and “liberty of conscience” to the student body and was amended in 1926 and 1942 to allow the president and all faculty members to openly practice religions other than Protestantism.
“We take it for granted today that Brown is open to all faiths. That’s nothing exceptional now,” Paxson said. “But, in 1764, the notion that an institution of higher education would not only accept students from all religions but would openly embrace the idea of ‘liberty of conscience’ was radical.”
While the University was not initially open to all people — explicitly barring Black people, Native Americans, women and atheists from becoming students — “that initial seed of an idea, that embrace of intellectual openness and diversity, that’s grown stronger over time,” Paxson said. “It’s become a defining part of our institutional culture,” despite scrutiny from the media saying that institutions of higher education “engage in indoctrinating students.”
Noliwe Rooks, department chair and professor of Africana Studies, delivered a keynote address at the ceremony titled “Finding Joy in the Journey: Memory Laws and The Battle to Remember.” Rooks, an author and interdisciplinary scholar, came to the University this year from Cornell. According to the University website, her work focuses on “how race and gender both impact and are impacted by popular culture, social history and political life in the United States.”
Rooks’ speech highlighted the importance of the 2006 “Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice,” which was assigned as a first-year reading for incoming students for the second consecutive year. The report was created by Brown faculty, students and administrators to “pursue steady progress in confronting issues of racism, discrimination and inequity,” according to the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity’s website.
“This is a document rooted in truth, truth telling and the belief that the truth about history matters to us today. It makes clear that genocide and racism and immorality and greed and a universe of crimes that offend humanity form the bedrock upon which rests this University, this state, this nation, these places that, for a time at least, we will all call home,” Rooks said. The report reveals “willful omissions” in depictions of American history that ignore the presence of slavery throughout the nation’s past.
Rooks also discussed recent legislative efforts to bar discussions of “critical race theory” from classrooms. She contrasted what she called this selective forgetting of the role of racism in our nation’s history against “memory laws” used to ensure the remembrance of stories concerning human rights abuses in Europe, namely the Holocaust.
American “memory laws” banning discussions of critical race theory “forbid illumination,” she explained. “They call for shadows, darkness or erasure. They would suppress or ban what Brown University has asked you to gauge and grapple with. Accordingly, for me, in this moment, this communal reading is a declaration of the principles on which Brown rests.”
With this year’s convocation and in-person programming, the University welcomed a new class of students.
“I came early for the pre-orientation Third World Transition Program, and that was honestly a great experience,” said Amaya Allen ’25. “I got to get acclimated to the campus before everyone else got here, which was nice, so when everyone else moved in I was already settled.”
Jason Wu ’25 expressed enthusiasm about returning to in-person events, following a year where many school activities and extracurriculars remained virtual in accordance with public health guidelines. “Here with people that I can actually talk to (in person) ... I’ve been having a lot of fun.”
For many incoming students, the arrival on campus comes with a sense of normalcy, embodied by the gathering of hundreds of individuals together on the Main Green for convocation — the sort of event that has been banned throughout the pandemic.
“It’s surreal,” Allen said. “To see this many people in one area safely is really amazing.”
And, for some, finding normalcy fosters excitement, as students eagerly await exploring the University in the years ahead with renewed freedom.
Coming together as a class in person is “really exciting,” Ethan Bove ’25 said. “I feel bad for (the class of 2024) because they never really had these (large, in-person) class events. But you can already feel the spirit of the class coming together ... as the class of 2025 we’re just excited to get going.”
“I just hope to get the opportunity to explore all my passions and my interests in a new way,” Allen said. “That’s why I chose Brown, that’s why I’m here — to really find what I love.”