The Power of Knowledge to Make the World Better: President Christina Paxson 2019 Convocation Remarks

Members of the Brown community – faculty,
staff, alumni, parents and students – it is my great pleasure, as President of Brown
University, to declare the two hundred and fifty-sixth academic year open! I want to welcome members of the entering
classes of the Medical School, Graduate School, and the College. Among them are: 144 dedicated medical school students. So dedicated that they’ve been here already a month and are studying for their first exams. So welcome. 876 exceptionally talented master’s and doctoral students, 10 brilliant Resumed Undergraduate Education
scholars – students who have gained life experience after high school before coming to Brown, 85 very wise and perceptive transfer students. And of course, 1,665 exceptional first-year
students, the core of the Brown Class of 2023! Now, I want to give shout-outs to two groups of
students. First, the 174 undergraduates who indicated
on their applications that they are the first in their families to attend college! Welcome. And second, the 619 international students
– undergraduate, graduate and medical – who decided to pursue their education here in
the United States, at Brown! We welcome you! One of Brown’s greatest strengths
is the diversity of talent it draws from all over the country and the world. Please, take every opportunity you can to
learn from the incredible range of experiences and perspectives of your classmates, and to
share your own stories with them. Now, this is always a really wonderful day, celebratory, it’s filled with excitement and anticipation about the academic year that is about to begin. But even on a joyful occasion like this, we
have to remember the world outside of Brown. And so, I ask that we pause for a moment of
silence in recognition of the victims and families affected by gun violence in this
country, most recently in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton, and just recently Odessa, as well as in other episodes
of violence around the globe. Please join me in a moment of silence. Thank you. You know, often, when terrible things happen, we feel powerless to do anything to make the world better. But I think my single message to you today is that you don’t have to feel that way. I say this because I know that your Brown
experience will empower you to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. Today, I want to make the case that learning
how to make the world better is exactly why you are here. And that your Brown education will give you
exactly the right knowledge and experience you’ll need to be a powerful agent of change. You will have so many opportunities to learn
from and work with people—faculty, staff, and other students—who are dedicated to
using their knowledge to make a difference. And you will find so many occasions to put
what you learn to good use. Let me begin by telling you about Megan Ranney. Megan is an emergency physician and a faculty member at the Warren Alpert Medical School here at Brown. Emergency department doctors like Megan are
on the front lines of treating victims of gun violence, saving lives, day in, day out. But Megan wants to do more. She wants to prevent gun violence. She views firearms injuries and deaths through
the lens of public health – literally, as a public health crisis. Her research, which she often conducts together
with Brown students, is informed by data on what approaches work. And which don’t – like, for example, the
myth that mental illness is the primary cause of mass shootings. In a recent op-ed, Megan and a co-author pointed
out that, and I quote, “Mental illness is certainly a problem in this country. But hate is not a mental illness.” Megan is a driving force within a growing
network of health care professionals who are dedicated to preventing gun violence. In part because their data-driven public health
approach rises, at least a little bit, above the fray of partisan politics. They’re changing public opinion
and they are impacting policy. They’re making a difference. This is the kind of powerful work you will
find here at Brown – work that you can contribute to, through classes, internships, independent
research, extracurricular activities. Megan, and many others like her, will inspire you, inspire all of us to live lives of meaning and purpose. My broader point is that knowledge does confer
the power to make the world better. I could give so many examples based on what’s
happening right here at Brown. One example, the pioneering work over at the Institute at Brown
for Environment and Society to help cities and regions of the world develop resilience
to climate change and plan for a clean energy future. The “Costs of War” project over at the Watson
Institute for International and Public Affairs, with leadership from Professor of Anthropology
Catherine Lutz, is bringing into very sharp focus the financial and human costs of global conflicts. A collaboration between Brown’s Center for
the Study of Slavery and Justice and Firelight Media. They’re working to produce a multi-part documentary
about the Atlantic slave trade, to deepen our understanding of how its legacy continues
to shape the modern world —even 400 years ago, just last month, after the first enslaved Africans arrived
in North America. I would also note the work of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, where Brown students are working with faculty to assess how to help struggling K-12 school systems
prepare children for lives of upward mobility – with the kind of practical knowledge that
is desperately needed across the world, and right here in Providence. Or finally, I’d note the research in Dr. Jake Curtis’ lab
to create a vaccine for malaria. This is a disease that kills over 1 million people per year,
mostly children under the age of five. It turns out that Jake, now a faculty member
and director of Brown’s MD/PhD program, he went to college at Brown. Just like all of you. His passion for curing malaria was inspired
by a summer internship after his junior year, when he went to Kenya to study coral reef
ecology. You might wonder how he went from studying
coral reef ecology to seeking a cure for malaria. Or maybe you guessed it. He contracted cerebral malaria while he was in Kenya on that internship. But fortunately for the world, he recovered. Now, my lesson here is that you don’t have to be stricken with a potentially-deadly disease to find your calling in life. Please don’t. We don’t want that to happen. But you do have to approach your studies with
rigor, intentionality, and a mind that’s open to seeing how the knowledge you acquire
will empower you to make the world better. Finally, I want to highlight two important,
related points as you embark on your journey as Brown students. One, the single most important virtue that you’ll cultivate at Brown are habits of mind that enable you to analyze, and communicate and
address complex issues with empathy, nuance, and wisdom. And two, you can acquire these habits of mind
by studying, well, pretty much anything. Now, I’m an economist – a field considered
by many, rightly or wrongly, to be a sure path to a good job. And we have so many outstanding students here at
Brown who are learning about engineering, computer science, and medicine. If you study these subjects, it will be obvious
how the knowledge that you’re acquiring can be applied to pressing real-world issues. But for those of you who are drawn to subjects
that may seem farther removed from the issues of the day – philosophy or theater or theoretical
astrophysics – remind yourselves (and, possibly, your skeptical parents!) that you are developing
the strongest possible foundation for a life of meaning and purpose. The world’s problems can’t be addressed
without people who think deeply about ethics; who understand the power of art to raise provocative
questions and bring groups together; or who, by studying the universe, are able to
see human problems with balance and perspective. And I suspect this is, in part, why you chose
Brown – to explore, to inquire, to discover precisely how you can make the world better. And I believe this will prove to be among the
most profound choices you will ever make.

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