Brown & Slavery & Justice

President Ruth J. Simmons’ letter to prospective committee members, April 2003

Committee Communications

April 30, 2003

Office of the President
Ruth J. Simmons
Box 1860
Brown University
Providence Rhode Island 02912

I am writing to invite you to serve as a member of a faculty-student steering committee that I hope will help the campus and the nation come to a better understanding of the complicated, controversial questions surrounding the issue of reparations for slavery. As you may know, Brown's history makes this an issue about which we have a special obligation and a special opportunity to provide thoughtful inquiry. I would like the steering committee to help Brown organize its impressive intellectual resources and to supplement them with outside expertise where necessary so that the many dimensions of this issue can be explored fully and openly.

The steering committee will comprise students and faculty who represent the range of knowledge and perspectives that will be necessary for a thorough historical inquiry into these matters. It will be important to explore comparative and historical contexts that may shed light on the issues of reparations and retrospective justice (for example, the history of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, apartheid in South Africa, etc.). A wide range of complicated legal questions, moral issues, and historical controversies will need to be examined rigorously and in detail. These are problems about which informed men and women of good will may ultimately disagree; however, the goal of the steering committee will not be to achieve a consensus, but to provide factual information and critical perspectives that will deepen our understanding.

The charge to the committee will be to organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the questions raised by this controversy. Activities that the steering committee might organize include a scholarly conference with Brown faculty and experts from around the country, publications of various kinds (a volume of papers from the conference, for example, or a collection of essays on the role of slavery within Brown’s history), public lectures and colloquia for the Brown community, undergraduate research projects on the UTRA or GRP models, or special courses on the issues and their historical backgrounds.

My hope is to form a committee of the highest academic quality that will be recognized as broadly inclusive of conflicting perspectives and differing methods of analysis. I have asked Dean of the College Paul Armstrong, Dean of the Faculty Mary Fennell, and Dean of the Graduate School Karen Newman to serve as ex-officio members of the committee so that they might provide staff support and practical guidance to support its work. However, the committee will be chaired by a faculty member, and its primary energy and directions will be generated by its faculty and student membership.

Like so many other contemporary public debates, the issue of reparations for slavery will benefit from time-honored methods of historical inquiry. The process of critical intellectual exploration is a strength of our institution that can be usefully brought to bear here. I hope you will lend your considerable talents to this effort.


Ruth J. Simmons