2019 Keynote Address

Presented by Rashid Zia, Dean of the College. professor of Engineering and Physics

"...And With the Material We Approach Together"

Rashid Zia, Dean of the College, professor of Engineering and Physics

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Thank you President Paxson for the kind introduction, and for this opportunity to help welcome the newest members of our Brown Community.

Good afternoon to the Undergraduate Class of 2023, and to the Undergraduate Class of 2024 from the Brown-RISD Dual Degree program.

Good afternoon to our newest Transfer and Resumed Undergraduate Education students from the Classes of 2021, 2022, and 2023; we are so delighted to have you join us.

And good afternoon to all of our new graduate, medical, and professional students, from the Masters Class of 2020 to the Medical Class of 2023 and the Doctoral Classes of 2022, 2023, 2024, and beyond.

It is my sincere honor to welcome you today from this location, because as a Brown undergraduate alum, this building, Faunce House, has special meaning for me. I still remember with joy my first evening at Brown here on these steps, where my class gathered for the annual ice cream social.

I still recall the anticipation and excitement of that evening, how exhilarating it was to meet so many peers from around the country and around the world -- who shared so many hopes and interests and values.

The people I met that night, and over the course of my studies at Brown (which thankfully continue to this day), would become my friends and mentors, my colleagues and teachers, members of my chosen family -- united by a shared passion for learning, for discovery, and for community.

So in our brief time together this afternoon, I want to share with you some stories and suggestions that might help you to find and make space within this University.

And to set the stage, I hope it is okay if we use as a touchstone the final word from our Latin motto - speramus. Speramus is the plural subjective case of the verb “to hope.” We hope, we trust, good things will happen.

(Ian, my Classics classmate that I met on these steps that night would be proud.)

It’s my goal today to bring forth those words, and to show you how hope and trust have helped to shape this University into one of the most powerful spaces for shared learning and discovery in the world.

Let me start with a story of hopes - the hopes that carried you up College Hill and through the gates of our campus. If you close your eyes, I am sure you can imagine the many people whose care and kindness made your journey to this place possible – your family and friends, teachers and counselors, loved ones. And as you picture them, think of their concrete hopes for you here, all that they might wish for you to do and achieve.

I am lucky, because I don’t need to close my eyes to picture some of the people whose hopes carried me to this campus – my mother and father are here with us this afternoon.

My dad was the first in his family to go to college in Iran, and was then fortunate to earn a fellowship to come to America for graduate studies. I can only imagine the hopes that helped carry my dad and mom on that flight to the United States, or after graduation, on their flight back home to Iran where they would start and grow our family.

Of all those concrete hopes, though, I am sure they could never have imagined the impact of that journey and how education would transform their lives, ultimately helping our family escape the bombs of the Iran-Iraq War to rebuild our home here as immigrants and now citizens in the United States.

Life is so unpredictable, and the impact of education so profound, that whatever those concretes hopes may be that have lifted you to this place today, they most certainly underestimate what will be made possible by your education.

Because education and research and shared knowledge expand the realms of possibility. They allow us to imagine and then realize better lives for ourselves, for our communities, for our world.

This hope, this optimism in education, defines the foundation of our community. Optimism is at the very core of the Open Curriculum, which underlies the spirit of shared learning and open inquiry on this campus.

When people come together, there is a fundamental choice - a choice about how we associate with one another, how we build rules and structures.

In many settings, people come together and design rules that avoid conflict, that seek to anticipate and prevent all that could go wrong.

At Brown, we chose 50 years ago to take a different path. Inspired by students who imagined what might be the best possible education, our curriculum sets out to promote all that could go right. Rather than beginning with a set of rules, our Open Curriculum is defined by a philosophy of education - an enduring and unifying purpose.

This is why, when you open the Brown Faculty Rules and Regulations to the section entitled “Baccalaureate Degree Requirements”, the first text you see is not a requirement. It is a short, 5 sentence Statement of Principles that define the purpose of education at Brown.

It was here, within Faunce House on the evening of May 7th, 1969, that students, faculty and administrators crafted those 5 enduring sentences that would come to define Brown’s distinctive approach to education, and I would like to share them with you today.

The first sentence says, “The purpose of undergraduate education (and indeed all education at Brown) is to promote the intellectual and personal development of the individual student.”

The key words here are “the individual student”. We are not seeking to create an education that works for most students, or for an idealized student, or for one type of student; rather, we seek to provide an individualized education for each and every student on this campus.

The next sentence defines how we achieve this high standard. It says, “The student, ultimately responsible for [their] own development in both of these areas, must be an active participant in framing [their] own education.”

The only way to achieve an individualized education is to provide you - the student - with the opportunity and responsibility to make choices, to take risks, to challenge yourself and to thus learn through both successes and failures.

Of course, that process is hard, and so the next sentence defines how we support this process as a community. It says, “A central aspect of this development is the relationship of the student with professors [with staff] and [with] fellow students and with the material they approach together.”

This is a statement about partnership and shared learning, about how we support one another, one which I hope you have already seen in action since you’ve arrived here, with your academic advisors, Meiklejohn peer advisors, and residential peer leaders. And it is one which I hope you will live out, perhaps as first-year UTRA fellows this summer working in close partnership with faculty on research projects advancing the frontiers of knowledge, as Writing and Problem-Solving Fellows deepening and sharing that knowledge with fellow peers as mentors and teachers on campus, and as Engaged Scholars working with off-campus partners to apply knowledge in support of our local and global communities.

Having defined both purpose and practice, then and only then, does the Statement turn to rules. It concludes: “Structures, rules, and regulations of the University should facilitate these relationships and should provide the student with the maximum opportunity to formulate and achieve [their] educational objectives. Accordingly, the ... curricular structure reflects these purposes.”

Because of course, we need rules and structures to define our community, but our community should not be defined by those rules. Rather, if we seek to achieve all that education can enable, the rules and structures should help to support our relationships with one another and with the material we approach together.

In the abstract, this philosophy is great, but let me share a secret that you will soon discover. In practice, it can be hard, because optimism relies on trust. We have to trust one another.

Remember those loved ones and their hopes for you. To the extent that you can see and feel their best goals and intentions for you -- that trust has taken a lifetime to build. And the challenge is that when we enter into new communities, it will take time to build that trust again.

Even more importantly, we can never truly know others’ intentions or goals. Although our minds are trained from birth to construct narratives and explanations of the world around us, we cannot know why someone does the things they do. And this poses a challenge, especially within any community of smart and observant scholars. It is hard not to see intent in actions.

I recall watching a video that helps illustrate this problem. In the video two dots, one big and one small move across the screen. First they move from left to right, disappearing out of view, before returning in switched positions as they move from right to left.

When asked to describe the video to others, many people will say something like: the big dot was chasing the little dot, or the little dot was running away from the big dot. That is, most of us, myself included, will construct a narrative; we will ascribe intentions to the characters we see.

There is, thankfully, a way we can use this inclination to build trust, and it is one that I have learned from my students, mentors, and colleagues here: to honor intentions.

Since we can never have access to what another person thinks or wants, we can try to imagine the best possible intention. Perhaps the little dot was late for class and was running as fast as they could to get there, and perhaps the big dot saw them drop their wallet and was running to return it.

I know this example is artificial, but I am sure you can imagine a more concrete case yourself. Perhaps when someone you met this weekend did something unexpected, and your mind quickly helped to fill in the gap. Next time it happens, see if you can slow down that moment and imagine the best possible intentions.

The complement to this challenge, however, is even harder. While we never know the intentions of others, we always feel deeply aware and confident of our own intentions. That means, when things go awry, when mistakes occur, and when our actions have unexpected consequences, it can be hard to understand and reconcile.

These are the moments that can break trust, when we may fall short of ourselves and our hopes. But even then, the process can be helped by practice: trust me -- I have made enough mistakes to have practiced a lot.

Rebuilding trust requires owning our impact. Understanding that regardless of our best intentions, if we seek to be in this shared learning community together, we must take account of how our actions’ impact others – especially in ways that we did not intend.

Owning our impact begins with empathy, with reflection, and with a sincere commitment both to learn from our mistakes and to take action to make amends. It is an active process and a human lesson, a part of our personal and intellectual development.

Honoring intentions and owning impact are at the heart of this community, at the foundation of our purpose-driven Curriculum, and they represent, I would venture, the best path toward realizing our shared hopes for this campus, for this country, and for this world together.

We place our faith in you and in all that you will accomplish.

Speramus - we hope, we trust, good things will happen.

Thank you.