Convocation 2015 Speech by President H. Kim Bottomly

Good afternoon! It’s great to be back on campus, and here in the Hay Outdoor Theatre, to celebrate Convocation and the start of this academic year. Welcome to Wellesley’s 141st year.

It’s wonderful to see so many members of our new yellow class—the Class of 2019. Welcome to Wellesley!

This year, we also have 13 new Davis Scholars and 11 transfer students. We are glad you are here!

I would also like to say a special welcome to our new faculty and our new administrative and union staff members who have joined Wellesley over the past year. Welcome to the Wellesley community!

To the purple Class of 2018: Welcome back. It’s great to see you again.

To the green Class of 2017: The best is yet to come. Welcome back.

And a particular welcome to our seniors, the red Class of 2016: You are our student leaders now. The other classes will be looking to you to set the tone for our campus with your leadership. As a symbol of that leadership, you have joined the faculty in wearing traditional academic robes.

Finally, let me welcome back our faculty and staff, many of whom were here working this summer. I hope you had a productive and enjoyable summer, and, like me, you are looking forward to the coming year.

A couple of years ago, a Wellesley senior told me that what she had valued most about her time on campus was the opportunity to talk to her professors and friends about complex and sensitive topics—to hear their views and perspectives--which in turn helped her to form her own opinions.

This is an important part of your Wellesley education; an important part of your Wellesley experience. Being open to and learning from differing views is never easy. Some think it is becoming more difficult to do. According to a 2013 survey on attitudes toward civility, 71 percent of Americans think incivility is getting worse each year, and 82 percent think such attitudes are harming America’s future.

Here on campus, we have faced a variety of issues in recent years—some sparked healthy discourse, while other topics made clear that we have more work to do.

And that is what I want to talk about today: civility and our responsibility to engage in and promote open discourse in all that we do.

Pundits tell us that the absence of civility has poisoned our political process in an unprecedented fashion—to the point, some say, that democracy seems unworkable.

Pundits often overstate things. We are a country, after all that engaged in a great civil conflict. One hundred and fifty years ago, we killed almost three-quarters of a million of each other over conflicting values. In the years leading up to that war, one of our Massachusetts senators was clubbed almost to death on the U.S. Senate floor by another senator who didn’t like his speech.

Incivility is hardly new.

But the scale of incivility may be new—as well as the availability of technology that makes it possible for incivility to be intrusive, extensive, and enervating. Today, everyone has a podium, no matter how deficient their knowledge, no matter how limited their insight.

While there are tremendous benefits from being able to connect easily with others around the world, there is also a downside: social media encourages capsulized mini-thoughts and discourages the recognition of complexity. It is a medium where nuance is lost, filters are gone, and where passions quickly become inflamed.

Harvard’s Randall Kennedy is one of those who has argued that we are in the midst of a civility crisis, one that signals the collapse of long-standing moral and ethical standards; one that is discouraging talented people from seeking positions in government or in public service of any kind.

College students around the country often cite the lack of civility in their conversations and discussions as a major problem today. If you cannot have wide ranging discussions in college, where and when will you ever have them?

Civility and civil discourse are important to education, and an important aspect of any intellectual community. At Wellesley, the responsibility of faculty, staff, and administrators is to provide a setting for you to have conversations that you have never had before, to set up and maintain the conditions where civil discourse can work.

You have responsibilities as well. Your responsibility is to participate actively in discussion of difficult topics, to confront topics you would prefer to avoid, to engage when it would be more comfortable to disengage. Most importantly, you have a responsibility to live with the sure knowledge that, no matter how certain you are or how obvious the point is to you, there is a possibility you have overlooked nuance or ignored counterpoints.

Or as Oliver Cromwell put it over 365 years ago, “I beseech you…think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

Why must you do that?  Why must the College enable you to do that?  Because it is crucial to your learning, to your growth and development.  

True learning is impossible without exposure to wide ranging views. Solving complex problems requires intellectual clarity, and intellectual clarity is forged in the competition of ideas.

If you lived in a well-cushioned silo surrounded only by like-minded people, you would get very comfortable—but you would never get very smart.

Our campus this century is more diverse than it has ever been in its history. There is more of everything—more ideas, more opinions, more life experiences, more backgrounds. And that is a very good thing.

But—this is important—for learning to occur, there must be a place for such radically different views to come together and to have open discourse without the fear of reprisal, humiliation, or ad hominem attacks. There must be a dedication to and an embracing of civil discourse. Of civil discourse for its own sake.

Our community is not a marketplace—we are not trying to sell our ideas. It is not a political sphere—we are not here to make sure our ideas win. At Wellesley, our purpose is to know more, to understand more, so we can make the world a better place.

Now, the word civility is misleading to many who misunderstand its meaning in this context. Free and open public debate is important and useful. It is also very often uncomfortable. Having our deeply held opinions and beliefs contradicted, even mocked, can be painful.

The word civility is rooted in the Latin word civitas. The Romans used civitas to refer to a community of belonging, but also to refer implicitly to the contract that binds us to a group—a group with shared responsibility, a common purpose, and a sense of community.

What we have in common in our Wellesley community far exceeds whatever we may disagree about. As diverse as our community is, every one of us at Wellesley is the same in one important way: We are all here for the love of learning—for the sake of expanding our knowledge and putting that knowledge to good use.

Civility is about the recognition of belonging to a civil society. It is also about truth and enlightenment.

Let me talk for a moment about what civility or civil discourse is not. It is not about being polite (though one of our Wellesley alums, the famous Miss Manners, would correctly insist that politeness should be an important part of it). Civility is not a smoke screen for protecting the status quo, for ensuring conformity or for discouraging dissent. And civility is not about being passive or uncommitted. As John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, civility is not a sign of weakness.

And let me emphasize one point strongly: Incivility is not someone expressing ideas that offend you or make you uncomfortable. Incivility is not about comments made in bad taste. Those comments bring nothing to the table, and reflect badly on the commentator, but are not in themselves incivility. Attempting to prevent people from saying or expressing ideas that offend you—that is incivility. Hiding from ideas by banning or boycotting their advocates, that is incivility. Engaging in ad hominem attacks rather than reasoned argument or deliberately derailing arguments, that is, in my opinion, incivility.

Too many people confuse civility with changing the rules to enforce a kinder, gentler democracy, shutting out any ideas that could lead to raised voices or hurt feelings. Civility does not imply silencing—it implies engagement—and as our own Madeleine Albright, Class of 1959, said: “Engagement is not endorsement.”

And as another alumna, Kathryn Davis, Class of 1928, said, “My many years have taught me that there will always be conflict. It’s part of human nature. But I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature.” 

The world needs what Wellesley graduates can bring to it.

At Wellesley, we have the tradition of service, the tradition of being “nobly useful.” To be truly useful, we must be exceptional—exceptionally knowledgeable, exceptionally dedicated, and, most importantly, exceptionally clear-minded.

We can achieve that clarity of vision not by hiding from ideas or by trying to silence ideas, not by today’s favored debate technique of hurling certainties at each other while closing our minds. We can achieve it, rather, by working together to foster a civil community—a community that recognizes that it is not enough to merely tolerate other ideas but instead strives to learn from them and take them seriously.

Wellesley is the perfect place to do that. And now is the perfect time to do that.

I hope you will think of Wellesley as a large and unending dinner table conversation—where you can test out your ideas, hear what other members of your “Wellesley family” think, and know that no matter what your beliefs are, you will continue to be a valued part of this family, respected by those around you.

Let us use this year to be open to new ideas and new friendships. Let us use this year to listen—to really listen—to a viewpoint that is different from our own. And let us use this year to advocate for others when their voices have been stifled, even if we disagree with them—and maybe especially if we disagree with them.

Let us do all of that, and I guarantee it will be a great year.