We cannot change the past. But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges. This principle applies particularly to universities, which profess values of historical continuity, truth seeking, and service. In the present instance, this means acknowledging and taking responsibility for Brown’s part in grievous crimes.
In the course of its research, the Steering Committee examined dozens of examples of retrospective justice initiatives from around the world. While each case is unique, the most successful generally combine three elements: formal acknowledgment of an offense; a commitment to truth telling, to ensure that the relevant facts are uncovered, discussed, and properly memorialized; and the making of some form of amends in the present to give material substance to expressions of regret and responsibility. The University’s response should partake of all three of these elements. Equally important, it should reflect Brown’s specific nature as an educational institution. What universities do best is learning and teaching, and these are the areas in which Brown can most appropriately and effectively make amends.
While members of the Steering Committee have different opinions about the propriety and value of an institutional apology, we believe that it is incumbent on the University, at a minimum, to acknowledge formally and publicly the participation of many of Brown’s founders and benefactors in the institution of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the benefits that the University derived from them.
Tell the truth in all its complexity
Every confrontation with historical injustice begins with establishing and upholding the truth, against the inevitable tendencies to deny, extenuate, and forget. The appointment of the Steering Committee and the various public programs it sponsored have already done a great deal to create awareness of a history that had been largely erased from the collective memory of our University and state. Yet there is more to be done. We recommend that the University:
- release this Report publicly, in both print and electronic versions, and circulate it widely among students, academic and non-academic staff, and alumni, as well as among other interested parties in Rhode Island and throughout the United States;
- sponsor public forums, on campus and off, to allow anyone with an interest in the Steering Committee’s work to respond to, reflect upon, and criticize the Report;
- include discussion of the University’s historical relationship to slavery as a normal part of freshman orientation;
- commission a new history of the University to replace the currently available text, which makes virtually no reference to slavery or the slave trade, or to the role that they played in Brown’s early history;
- lend its support and assistance to other institutions that might be considering undertaking similar investigations of their own histories.
Few if any institutions in our society are as quick to erect memorials as universities. The Brown campus contains literally hundreds of statues, stones, portraits, plaques, and other markers, each placed by one generation to inform and edify generations to come. Yet there are no memorials acknowledging the University’s entanglement with the transatlantic slave trade. To the best of our knowledge, there is only one such marker in the vicinity of the campus, a small brass plaque near the entrance of the John Brown House, which mentions slave trading in a list of its one-time owner’s activities. Installed by the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and the Rhode Island Historical Society after a long and public debate, the plaque was almost immediately defaced by vandals.
As this example suggests — and as programs sponsored by the Steering Committee on the politics of slavery and Holocaust memorials confirmed — memorializing traumatic histories can be difficult and awkward. The challenge, easier to articulate than to accomplish, is to create a living site of memory, inviting reflection and fresh discovery without provoking paralysis or shame. We believe that Brown can and should answer this challenge. We recommend that the University
- undertake to create a slave trade memorial to recognize its relationship to the transatlantic trade and the importance of this traffic in the history of Rhode Island;
- sponsor a public competition to design such a memorial, keeping in mind that debate and controversy over an appropriate design are integral parts of the process of coming to terms with the past;
- designate an annual day of remembrance on the academic calendar, to be marked by a visit to the memorial by University representatives, an endowed lecture, and other activities designed to encourage continued reflection on this aspect of our history.
Universities express their priorities first and foremost in their selection of fields of study. We believe that Brown, by virtue of its history, has a special opportunity and obligation to foster research and teaching on the issues broached in this Report, including slavery and other forms of historical and contemporary injustice, movements to promote human rights, and struggles over the meaning of individual and institutional responsibility. We recommend the establishment of a scholarly center dedicated to these questions. The center should include
- a full-time director;
- a newly created endowed professorship, lodged jointly in the center and an appropriate academic department, to be held by a distinguished scholar whose research engages broad questions of justice and injustice;
- fellowships for postgraduate and senior scholars;
- abundant research opportunities for Brown students, both undergraduates and graduates;
- internships and service-learning opportunities for undergraduates interested in working with anti-slavery organizations and other institutions dedicated to the promotion of human rights;
- public programming aimed at both the University and the wider community;
- a significant educational outreach component, including workshops and curriculum development, to help teachers integrate topics related to slavery and justice into their classrooms;
- administrative and staff support, to ensure sustainability and effective collaboration with existing departments and centers at Brown, including the Swearer Center for Public Service, the Watson Institute for International Studies, the Cogut Humanities Center, the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Public Humanities, and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.
Maintain high ethical standards in regard to investments and gifts
With institutions as with individuals, taking responsibility for an offense entails more than expressing remorse for past conduct; it also requires a commitment to doing better in the future. As we have seen, Brown’s early endowment benefited from contributions made by slaveowners and slave traders. Although slavery is no longer legal, it persists in many parts of the world, alongside a variety of other forms of gross injustice. Given its history, the University has a special obligation to ensure that it does not profit from such practices.
Brown has already taken important steps in this regard. The University recently introduced a new procedure for the ethical review of major gifts that is, at least on paper, one of the most rigorous in the nation. It has also expanded the purview (though not the resources) of the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment, which makes recommendations to the Brown Corporation on proxy resolutions, as well as on ethical concerns raised by members of the Brown community. The value of this process can be seen in the University’s recent decision to divest itself of all direct holdings in companies doing business in Darfur, the scene of an ongoing genocide. Yet there is also some cause for concern. Like most of its peer institutions, Brown in recent years has invested an increasing portion of its endowment in hedge funds, commingled vehicles that afford the University no influence over the companies in which it is invested, and provide no clear knowledge of what investments it holds at any given moment. While the Committee has no reason to believe that Brown is involved in any unethical practices, we find this lack of transparency troubling.
Recognizing the importance of growing the endowment, yet mindful also of Brown’s distinctive history, we recommend that the University:
- uphold a strict procedure for the ethical review of gifts;
- strengthen its commitment to socially responsible investment by expanding its holdings in socially responsible funds and offering facilities to donors who wish to ensure that their gifts are invested in such funds;
- provide the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment with the logistical and staff support that it needs to do its work effectively;
- review its investment strategies with a goal of increasing transparency and ensuring accountability.
Expand opportunities at Brown for those disadvantaged by the legacies of slavery and the slave trade
Over the last few years, hundreds of people have written to the Steering Committee offering suggestions about what Brown might do to make amends for its history. The single most common suggestion was creating special scholarships for African American students. Given Brown’s failure to admit more than a handful of Black students during its first two hundred years, it is a logical suggestion, and one whose spirit we endorse. But it is not a recommendation that we can make.
Brown is a need-blind/need-based institution. This means that the University, like most of its peer schools, admits students without regard to their ability to pay, committing itself to providing whatever financial aid an individual might require through a combination of grants, work-study employment, and loans. The obverse of this commitment is that Brown, like its peers, does not offer financial assistance on any basis other than financial need. We believe that this policy, which ensures that every qualified student can attend Brown, regardless of his or her financial circumstances, is just and equitable.
This is not to say that there is nothing the University can do. The commitment to need-blind/need-based admissions does not preclude actively recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or tailoring the financial aid packages of the neediest students to increase the proportion of grants versus loans. Indeed, the University has recently done precisely this through the creation of the Sidney Frank Scholars program, which frees Brown’s most economically disadvantaged students of any future loan obligations. Nor does the current system preclude increasing financial aid to international students, who are currently excluded from the need-blind system.
Mindful of these constraints, but mindful also of Brown’s history of racial exclusion, we recommend that the University:
- maintain a vigorous commitment to recruiting and retaining a diverse student body, focusing in particular on increasing the representation of African American students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels;
- strengthen such initiatives as the Sidney Frank Scholars program and Talent Quest, a joint program of the Brown Admission Office and the Brown Alumni Schools Committee, to ensure that students from even the most economically disadvantaged backgrounds have every opportunity to study and prosper at Brown;
- increase the amount of financial aid available to needy students from outside the United States, with a long-term goal of making Brown a need-blind institution for international students;
- dedicate particular attention to the recruitment of students from Africa and the West Indies, the historic points of origin and destination for most of the people carried on Rhode Island slave ships;
- maintain a vigorous commitment to recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty and nonacademic staff.
Use the resources of the University to help ensure a quality education for the children of Rhode Island
If a single theme runs through this Report, it is education. This focus reflects not only Brown’s nature as an educational institution but also the nature of slavery: In large parts of our country, it was once a crime to teach a Black person to read. During the age of abolition, many Americans, Black as well as white, recognized education as essential to repairing the legacy of slavery and equipping the formerly enslaved for the full enjoyment of their rights as free people. The original Rhode Island Gradual Abolition Act, for example, required towns to provide the children of slaves with publicly funded instruction in “reading, writing, and Arithmetic,” a provision that clearly reflected the influence of Moses Brown. But the towns resented the expense and the state legislature removed the requirement. A similar process of advance and retreat occurred in the South, where the promise of an equal education for the newly free was swept away by the collapse of Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow, with its specious doctrine of separate but equal. Rather than promoting equality and common citizenship, public schools became vehicles for perpetuating inequality and segregation.
Racial segregation in public education was finally declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, yet today, more than half a century later, American public schools continue to be characterized by de facto racial segregation, as well as by profound disparities in school quality and student achievement. To appreciate the dimensions of the crisis, one need look no further than Providence, where forty-eight of the city’s forty-nine public schools currently fail to meet federally prescribed minimum standards for academic achievement. This situation represents a direct challenge to Brown University. One of the most obvious and meaningful ways for Brown to take responsibility for its past is by dedicating its resources to improving the quality of education available to the children of our city and state.
The resources that the University brings to the task are formidable. Brown is home to an array of institutions and programs with interests in public education, including the Education Department (which provides teacher training for both graduate and undergraduate students), the Swearer Center for Public Service, the Education Alliance, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Choices Program of the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown Summer High School, and the newly created Urban Education Policy Program. Even more importantly, it is blessed with extraordinarily energetic students, literally hundreds of whom work in local schools as individual tutors and mentors, as well as in such programs as the Rhode Island Urban Debate League and the Arts/Literacy Project.
As the sheer variety of programs and initiatives suggests, Brown’s efforts have been highly decentralized. They have also been ill-coordinated and chronically underfunded, creating problems of sustainability and limiting their systemic impact. The recent appointment of a director of educational outreach and the funding of a University liaison position in the office of the superintendent of Providence schools hold the promise of better coordination, but they are only the beginning. If Brown is to make a meaningful impact in local schools, it will require a sustained, substantial commitment of energy and resources over many years. We recommend that the University:
- create professional development opportunities for Rhode Island public school teachers, including the opportunity to enroll in one Brown class per semester, without charge;
- expand the number of course offerings and available scholarships in Brown Summer High School, which has a long record of success in preparing local students for the challenges of college-level work;
- increase funding to Brown’s Master of Arts in Teaching Program, including full tuition waivers for students who commit themselves to working for at least three years in local public schools;
- create opportunities and incentives for Brown faculty to offer enrichment courses in local schools and to use their expertise to help develop new programs and curricular materials;
- invest substantial resources, including dedicated faculty positions, in the new Urban Education Policy Program, with an eye to establishing Brown as a national leader in this vital field;
- expand internship and service-learning opportunities for undergraduate students with interests in public education;
- coordinate its efforts with those of Rhode Island College, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson and Wales University, each of which currently administers educational outreach programs in Providence public schools;
- provide administrative and staff support, through agencies such as the Swearer Center and the Office of Educational Outreach, to ensure effective collaboration and the sustainability of its educational initiatives.