The New University

By E. Gordon Gee / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007
Standing on this campus, surrounded by these centuries-old buildings - their cornerstones laid when my hometown was still an unclaimed patch of wilderness - I am exhilarated by the convergence of history and potential. And I am inspired by the greatness of the charge of leading this most venerable institution into the future.

Today I remember my small hometown in Utah, high in the Rocky Mountains, where the wind blew across the fields at harvest time, bending the crop low. I remember wondering what was waiting beyond those mountains and those valleys and where the roads would lead. Time has answered that question for me, as it will for all of you. I can say from experience, what awaits you may be in a dream or a wish. It may be something unanticipated. It may require perseverance, patience, and prayer, and perhaps a portion of luck. But it is there. It will come, and when it does, you will feel as grateful and as blessed as I do.

The words of Henry Merritt Wriston, Brown's eleventh president, have a particular resonance for me today. In 1937, when he was inaugurated, he said to the Brown community: "I speak to you no longer as an alien and a stranger. By this ceremony of adoption, just now completed, I have entered into your heritage, and have become one of the co-heirs of your traditions and achievements, a joint tenant of your properties and purposes, a coworker in the fulfillment of your duties and obligations, a fellow exponent of your ideals."

Now our paths have crossed on this Green, and Wriston's voice echoes through these buildings and halls. If I could hold a conversation with the past, I would tell Henry Wriston that we have much in common. He would say that he was from Wyoming, neither a Baptist nor a Brown alumnus. I would say that I am a Mormon from Utah, and that now, sixty-one years after him, and like others before me, I too have entered into the heritage of this University.

I would ask him what he believes is expected of me. He would, no doubt, say as he once said, "The President is expected to be an educator; to have been at some time a scholar; to have judgment about finance; to know something about construction, maintenance, and labor policy; to speak virtually continuously in words that charm and never offend; to take bold positions with which no one will disagree; to consult everyone and follow all proffered advice; and do everything through committees but with great speed and without error."

I would thank him and say, "Good advice, Henry." Then I would ask him what it was that he sought to accomplish as president.

He might tell me that he sought to awaken a decent pride in this university, and rebuild Brown's sense of community. And I would respond that I would work to broaden that pride beyond the Van Wickle Gates. I would tell him that my charge is to continue to give this private institution a world view, a world voice, and a public purpose. I would tell him that the times demand that we become not simply a collection of intellectuals, but a community of scholars who acknowledge the contributions of all members of this community. I would say that each of us has a responsibility to teach, to learn, to serve - to become true citizens of this University.

I would tell President Wriston that, within the community, our obligation is to the wild and vast experience of learning, wherever it takes us, to opening ourselves to a kaleidoscope of ideas and concepts, to seeing past the obvious, to looking at the stars and gaining perspective in powers of ten, from the tiniest workings of the smallest cell to the broadest reaches of the distant universe. I would tell him that putting a premium on intellect and creating an ever changing, ever renewable, student-based, scholar-driven community is not only my task, but my solemn duty.

Today is not a time to focus only on the present. Today is a time to reflect on where this University has been, the course it has followed, the choices it has made, and then establish a clear vision of the sea ahead. This institution, firmly planted in the rich and proud traditions of its past, old and honored, rising from its roots as a small New England Baptist university, must have a wide view of the world as it settles into its third century.

From the day James Manning landed in Newport in 1763 with a plan for a liberal institution of learning, to the day in 1765 when he was sworn in as its first president, Brown has prevailed. From the seven students in the class of 1769 to the 1,492 seniors, the 436 grad students, and the eighty-one medical students who graduate this month, Brown has prevailed. From 1864, when Anna Weeden and Mary Wooley became the first women to graduate, to Sarah Elizabeth Doyle and the unique coalition of women's clubs that eventually formed Pembroke, to Margaret Stillwell, who, in 1909, was the first woman to be a full professor - Brown has prevailed. From Manning, to Wayland, to Faunce, Wriston, Swearer, and Gregorian, this University has grown and prospered through revolution and wars, and it will prosper and grow in the new century.

Our only risk is complacency. Our only mistake would be to creep timidly into the future, frozen by tradition, reluctant to change, unwilling to seize opportunity, divided by our diversity rather than united in our common interests. This is a time to take risks, be bold, move from strength, and resist the temptation to be drawn into the safety of the mainstream. For Brown's greatest strength and achievement has been its willingness to embrace change.

There are those who have criticized our adventurous spirit. But today they look to Brown to learn the secrets of our success. Our innovative, flexible curriculum is the jewel of our university-college. No one has more cause for celebration and optimism than the men and women of Brown, past and present, here and remembered, for we are different. We have always been unique. We have always traveled to a beat of our own, and we are the drummers at the center of what will continue to be an extraordinary educational journey.

Make no mistake. The journey ahead will be difficult at times. It will test our resolve, our intellect, and our courage. It will require continual change and constant renewal. We must continue to challenge old assumptions. We must respect tradition, without limiting our future as a new community of learning and service.

William James wrote, "We patch and tinker more than we renew." I want us to do more than patch and tinker. I want us to focus our collective vision on continual revival, through debate and discussion, so that we may establish a learning community with the same flexibility and adaptability that we bring, as scientists and scholars, to our intellectual activity.

In this world of instant communication, when information is measured in gigabytes, we cannot wait. Think about this: When the class of 1948 arrived here, the first transistor had just been created, the world was still at war, the first atomic bomb was about to be dropped, the long-playing record had not been invented, and Orville Wright was alive. In their junior year, the G.I. Bill had passed, the Veterans College was formed, and 486 returning veterans lived in "Brown Town" near Marvel Gymnasium in old Navy barracks brought here from Newport.

Now, the class of 1998 enters a world in which new technology and intense research, unimaginable fifty - even ten - years ago, will take us to places we may prefer not to go, and to others that may unravel the deepest mysteries of science, the universe, and the very fabric of human life as we know it. It may raise new and more profound ethical, economic, philosophical, religious, and political questions than we have ever before confronted - questions that will require institutions of higher education, researchers and scholars, to make difficult choices and look beyond obvious traditional solutions. What we do - what we discover - will affect not only the nature of our communities, but how we live and, perhaps most profoundly, how we define life.

But in a technological world, where access to information translates into skill, and skill translates into a career, we must hold to the simple notion that education is not a bottom-line idea. At Brown, teaching is not for profit. It is for life. Teaching is for understanding, for creative, informed thought. Above all else, our greatest challenge at every institution of higher education, from the smallest community college to the largest university, is to resist the temptation and the trend to train students for specific careers instead of teaching them to think about the vast range of intellectual possibilities. At Brown, our tradition is teaching, learning, and a liberal education. And that tradition will keep us in the van

guard of the most desirable institutions of higher education in the world.

We are small. And we can use our size and flexibility to reinvent the American university. We

have an opportunity to become a unique model, a learning community of the twenty-first century, a place where free, open, rational, logical debate takes precedence over the single-minded cynicism of fashionable ideas. Our new learning community demands total participation and a commitment to service at every level. It demands resolve. It demands passionate deliberation and resourceful solutions. It begs for camaraderie and cries out for tolerance, respect, dignity, civility, and honor. It diminishes politics and enhances research and enlightenment. It rewards justice, perseverance, and compassion. It creates harmony and nurtures creativity. It expects logic and perspective to rule over emotion and parochialism. It requires compromise and abhors mediocrity. It is the center of enlightened intellectual life. It is a place to live and to learn and to teach and to serve.

We must encourage speaking out, not fear that in doing so we may offend someone or some group. We must encourage rational, logical debate. If we are unable to have free and open discussions without fear of retribution or being labeled, then we will have failed not just as a university but as good, decent, rational human beings.

Recently, a young woman from the class of 1983, Lane Wallace, of Corona, California, wrote to me. These are her words: "The greatest gift Brown has to offer is a commitment to put people ahead of things. I remember very few actual facts or details from any class I took at Brown, and I could not tell you if any of my professors were tops in their fields. But I can tell you which ones cared enough to take time to talk to or influence their students. My values, career ambitions, and worldview were greatly influenced by the individuals I got to know at Brown - people whose different backgrounds and life experiences touched me and opened doors, perspectives, questions; and a realization that the world in which I grew up was not the only one that existed.

"What changed my life was the philosophy Brown imparted: To learn for the joy of it, not just the grade - and to pursue what you loved or thought mattered in life, not just what society seemed to expect or a job that would pay a lot of money."

We have a moral obligation to preserve this philosophy of learning. In the short time since I arrived here, I have learned that Brown may be traditional in its values, but it is a dynamic, vibrant, and modern community of higher education because of the way we teach. We are not only faculty-centered, but centered around a partnership between faculty and students. Our students are teachers, and our teachers are students.

The class of 1973 was the first class to benefit from the experience of this partnership, this collaborative learning process formerly known as the New Curriculum. The class of 1973 understands firsthand that the way we teach at Brown is the truest, most direct, most powerful method of moving a student from being trained and informed to being truly educated. Let me take this opportunity to say to each member of the faculty: to have taught at Brown in this curriculum is to have moved students' minds, to have challenged their intellects as well as their imaginations. It is to have opened a universe of ideas and widened their perspectives to see every flickering element and understand how it relates to a particular discipline. You have moved a generation of graduates beyond learning to knowledge and understanding. The scholar-teachers of Brown have made us what we are today and will be at the center of this learning community's future.

But what does that future hold?

The future of Brown demands that our leadership, along with every member of this community, come together to address the range of complex, troublesome issues we face: How do we balance the needs of an undergraduate liberal-arts institution with a graduate and research university? How do we attract the best faculty and students? How do we limit administrative costs? How do we motivate every member of the Brown community to take an active role in its future? How do we balance fund-raising and financial pressures with continued academic excellence? How do we balance research and scholarship with our commitment to becoming a private university with a public purpose?

The truth is that in the future Brown will be the model as higher education radically reconfigures itself to promote true, engaged learning and thinking. No institution can afford to rely on the hierarchy separating departments and programs as well as academic and nonacademic cultures. The new university, like Brown, must be a borderless intellectual center, promoting community over isolation and dedicated to sharing objectives over guarding individual concerns. The new university must be a superdisciplinary learning community, based on the moral imperative of our experience, our creativity, our imagination and boldness, and our willingness to take risks. If we continue to do these things, we will have fulfilled our mission. We will have set the standard for the new university in the next century.

As I stand before you this morning, speaking about the future, I stand on the shoulders of great women and men who had a worldview. At an old and glorious institution like Brown, when we speak about the future, we also honor our past. To quote President Wriston again: "I have often thought that no student can walk the paths of the College Green for four years - if he has any sensitivity at all - without learning something from the appearance, something from the atmosphere that its buildings breathe, something from the way history looks down upon [us]."

So many paths have crossed on this Green. They came as young men and women and went on to greatness, and if you listen closely, you can still hear their voices: the muffled laughter of frightened soldiers outside University Hall, talking of revolution in 1777; the trembling voice of a wounded French officer looking out at the Green from his bed when University Hall had become a hospital in 1780; the excitement in the voice of a young Nicholas Brown Jr. receiving his diploma in the first post-Revolutionary Commencement in 1786. The voices of the twenty Brown students who died in the Civil War still echo here.

We can hear Margaret Stillwell recounting her experience as a young faculty member at the turn of the century. She said: "I, as a woman, had invaded a world they had pre-empted for themselves. In some instances this antagonism was subtle and hidden like a snake in the grass. In others it was blatant and rude." We can hear the visionary voice of John Hope, one of Brown's early African-American graduates and a leader in higher education who went on to become president of Morehouse College. Just over one hundred years ago, at his commencement, John Hope remarked: "To have been at Brown University is to have drunk in the unpretentious, unobtrusive, yet all pervading idea of liberty and brotherhood; and to have acquired a breadth of culture which means the erasure of all lines, be they of race, or sect, or class, and recognizes no claim other than that which highest manhood makes." Perhaps that echo is not from the distant past at all.

Let me close with this thought. In the learning community that I see, neither the true scholar nor the true educator is found only in the classroom. I see a community in which everyone is a learner and everyone is a scholar. I see a community in which scholars can be discovered everywhere on this campus. The true scholar is the one who explains. The true scholar is of service. The true scholar is not isolated in the singular pursuit of knowledge. The true scholar unravels mysteries, finds new answers, reveals profound old truths, and then shares them with the community at large. The true scholar is a free thinker with a sense of responsibility.

We might ask, as we leave this campus, some of us for the last time, how many scholars have we met in our years at Brown? How many have shown us facts in the face of fads and fashions? How many have revealed to us truths hidden by our emotions or our prejudices? How many have thought beyond the obvious, past the traditional, and into the soul of the matter? How many have, through logic and a keen awareness of the human mind, eased tensions and ended hostility? Our task is to be a genuine community of scholars.

Emerson said that the true scholar is one who "raises himself from private considerations and lives and breathes on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart."

Brown is a place where together we see with the world's eye, and together we understand with the world's heart. I am blessed to be in this place.

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Related Issue
July / August 1998