University News

Learning from Our Differences
A letter from the President

By Christina Paxson / November–December 2023
November 9th, 2023

In September, I had the privilege of marking the opening of the 2023-24 academic year and welcoming the Brown University Class of 2027 at Brown’s 260th Opening Convocation. Given the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring race-conscious admissions practices, I spoke about my continued belief in the importance of diversity in higher education. An excerpt of the speech follows:

The first major speech I gave as the president of Brown University was at our Opening Convocation on September 5, 2012.

It poured! Despite the disappointment that Convocation had to be moved to the Pizzitola Sports Center, I was excited to begin my new role. I felt so optimistic about Brown’s future.

After welcoming our new students, I stated three ideals that we as a community hold sacred: that the pursuit of education is noble; that the right to learn should not be limited by the ability to pay; and that diversity is far more than a legal concept, or a mathematical equation, but a profoundly ethical belief that our differences enlighten and enhance us.

At the time, these ideals were not especially controversial. But times have changed. Over the past decade, higher education has been subject to intense criticism in the media, considerable political wrangling, and several significant legal decisions. Subjects of debate include the cost and value of college, student debt forgiveness, free speech on college campuses, and equity in admissions.

But nothing is currently more controversial than the role of diversity in higher education. The Supreme Court’s recent decision barring the consideration of race and ethnicity as a criterion in college admission is viewed by many as the death knell of racial diversity in colleges and universities—to the delight of some and the despair of others.

Although I was disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision, it has not shaken my belief that our differences enlighten and enhance us. I continue to believe that diversity is essential to the academic excellence we value.

Brown cannot be a great university without a student body that represents a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and cultures.

Brown cannot be a great university—providing excellent education and advancing knowledge and understanding for the common good—without a student body that represents a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and cultures that reflect the diversity of our country and our world.

Imagine how much a student from an immigrant family might add to a classroom debate on immigration policy; how much a student-veteran could contribute to discussions of military strategy or post-traumatic stress disorder; and how the life experiences and insights of a Black medical student might spark new research on racial disparities in maternal mortality and other health outcomes.

Imagine how much a friendship between two students—one whose parents did not attend college, and the other whose parents are university professors—might enrich the lives of both.

And then imagine how much poorer we would be as a university if our students came in with monotonously similar life experiences and worldviews, unequipped to ask and answer the provocative questions that are central to learning.

And, as a result, how much less they would be able to contribute to society as college graduates.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision is narrow. By focusing solely on the consideration of race and ethnicity as a criterion in admission decisions, it removed one—but only one—strategy for increasing the diversity of our student body.

With your help, and the help of our alumni, Brown can and will employ race-neutral strategies that honor the letter and the spirit of the law. We will cast the widest possible net when encouraging students from all backgrounds to apply to Brown.  We will encourage outstanding, diverse students to continue to accept offers of admission. And we will proudly highlight our commitments to academic excellence, open inquiry, and the equitable and inclusive treatment of all our students and community members.

Eleven years after that first Convocation speech—this time on a beautiful, sunny day—I continue to be optimistic about Brown’s future and about our ability to draw on our differences to advance knowledge and understanding, for the benefit of society.

My optimism is fueled by all of you. Each and every one of you has so much to offer this community, in your own extraordinary way. You were admitted to Brown because of your brilliance, your commitment to academic excellence, your curiosity, your kindness, your boldness, and your passion for advancing the public good. I’m so glad that you’re here.

Read the November–December President’s Spread on the Building Pandemic Resilience” here (PDF). 

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November–December 2023