Johanna Schmitt to first-years: Darwin ‘more relevant than ever’
It was no accident, Professor Johanna Schmitt told a large crowd students, faculty, and staff on the College Green yesterday afternoon, that she had been asked to address them: She is, after all, an evolutionary biologist, and this year’s freshmen had all been asked to read The Beak of the Finch, “a fascinating account of natural selection,” before arriving on College Hill.
Schmitt praised Darwin’s “great ideas” – the theory of evolution, she noted, “is no longer in dispute” as science – while cautioning that today, climate change and human environmental impact have combined to extinguish varieties of organisms that don’t adapt fast enough. “The rate of species loss,” she said, is comparable to that during the “six massive extinction events” in the Earth's history, including the one that wiped out dinosaurs.
Schmitt, the Stephen T. Olney Professor of Natural History and director of Brown’s Environmental Change Initiative, concluded with some advice she had promised as she began her speech: She urged students to “structure your niche” in their years at the University in order to take full advantage of Brown’s opportunities.
The event officially opened Brown’s 246th year for 2,234 new undergraduate, medical, and graduate students at the Ivy League university. Following a long but joyous procession in through the Van Wickle Gates and onto the Green, President Ruth J. Simmons began the formal ceremony by noting that last year was a challenging one for Brown due to the economic crisis afflicting the nation. However, she noted, thanks to a steadfast chancellor, a supportive Corporation, and the generosity of donors, “We open this year with renewed confidence in the health of this university.”
Simmons listed a variety of building and renovation projects near completion or under waythat will enhance academic and student life – the Joukowsky Institute for Old World Archaeology and Art, the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center (which is now projected to be completed within a year, earlier than expected), the Creative Arts Building, a medical education building, a facility for the Mind, Brain, Behavior program, and a new swim and fitness center.