Provost's Remarks

Provost Shennan delivers his 2017 convocation remarks

Convocation Remarks by Provost Andy Shennan

Thank you, President Johnson, for those powerful words.  Hello everyone.  My name is Andy Shennan, and I am the Provost. It is a privilege to be here again to greet my colleagues in the faculty and administration at the beginning of this new academic year.  It is a pleasure to welcome our first year students in the green Class of 2021 and to welcome back the Classes of 2019 and 2020.  And, above all, hail to the purple Class of 2018, resplendent in the academic gowns that you will wear at Commencement next spring.

My main responsibility as your provost is to oversee the academic program, which is, to a large extent, the thing that brings us all here today.  Over the years that I have held this responsibility (this is my fourteenth year), I have tried to relate my Convocation remarks to our program and to the history of our College, and to stay away from politics.  For me, this reflects an important point of principle: the purpose of your coming here is to enable each of you to find your own voice, formulate your own opinions, have your own politics.  If the College identified itself exclusively with one party or one ideology, we couldn’t say with conviction that we were providing a space for full and unfettered discovery and self-discovery. 

And yet, and yet, at this moment how can one not speak about the political sphere, when what is being said and done there so directly contradicts some of the most fundamental elements of this institution’s mission?   Our belief in the transcendent value of truth-seeking, of evidence, of facts, of data, is challenged by a world in which unvarnished lies are broadcast as truths.  The value we attach to women’s education and empowerment is challenged, one might almost say mocked, by the unambiguous misogyny so evident in our political culture.  And how far can we advance the cause of equality for women when old ideas of supremacy and bigotry find new resonance and support at the highest levels? 

So the question is: what is the appropriate way for an educational institution to counter this moment of resurgent anti-intellectualism, misogyny and racism?  The answer, to my mind, has to lie in education itself.  That was the philosophy behind the faculty teach-ins that we held last winter.  We asked faculty members from different fields to bring us together in a search for truth and meaning, informed by the insights of their academic disciplines.  And this year that work has to continue, not just in large community gatherings, but in our classrooms, libraries, labs and studios.  Every time we hear evidence or data being misrepresented or flat out ignored, we should rededicate ourselves to the discipline of good research, academic integrity and the scientific method.  Every time we hear history being misrepresented or rewritten, we should rededicate ourselves to critical thinking about the past.  Every time we hear benign terms being used to camouflage ugly realities, we should rededicate ourselves to critical thinking about language and about visual imagery and the construction of meaning.  Nobody has expressed this imperative more eloquently than the author Chimamanda Adichie, our Commencement speaker a couple of years ago.  In a New Yorker article shortly after last year’s election, she wrote as follows:

“Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it… Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion.  Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal.”

To my mind, it is unarguable that the current administration has given license to the expression of ugly ideas.  But we’d be kidding ourselves, if we didn’t acknowledge that most of those ugly ideas were there before this administration began, and they will be there after it ends.  The image that comes to my mind to capture our predicament is suggested by this summer’s solar eclipse.  Our view not just of Adichie’s greater truths but also of the underlying and enduring realities of inequity and bias has been eclipsed, in a certain sense, by the orbit of a smaller, more contingent phenomenon.  But when this smaller object blocking our vision moves along, we will again be confronted by the larger, enduring realities. 

Let me try to convey this image in a more specific way, by telling you about a recent study that highlights deep-rooted stereotyping that existed long before we entered the current eclipse.  The study concerns economists, and I want to preface it by saying two things: first of all, economics is far from the only academic field in which women are under-represented and I don’t know of any evidence that economists as a whole are more prone to stereotyping than scholars in other such fields; second (and I’ll come back to this in a moment), we can take pride in the gender balance of our own Economics department and in that department’s extraordinary contribution to the education of women in this field.

The study I am referring to was actually a senior thesis written by a UC Berkeley undergraduate.  Her name is Alice Wu.  Ms. Wu had the inspired idea of applying data mining methods to an anonymous online message board called Economics Job Market Rumors.  As its name suggests, this message board was originally created as a forum to comment on hiring in the field of Economics.  But it has evolved (in the words of one economist) into a “virtual water cooler” where Economics professors, graduate students and others exchange anonymous opinion and gossip.  What Ms. Wu did (looking at more than one million posts) was compare the words that were most often used when the subject of a post was a man with those most commonly used when the subject was a woman.  The list of words most often applied to women in this professional forum is appalling: for the most part, they are not words that would be appropriate to read aloud on an occasion such as this.  So yes I was shocked by the actual words, but I wasn’t shocked by the general finding, and I expect most of you wouldn’t be, either.  Let me summarize it from a recent New York Times article: “[D]iscussions about men are more likely to be confined to topics like economics itself and professional advice (with terms including career, interview or placement).  Discussions of women are much more likely to involve topics related to personal information (with words like family, married or relationship), physical attributes… or gender-related terms (like gender, sexist or sexual.)”

When I discussed this study with my colleague Kristin Butcher, chair of the Economics department, she and I agreed that one of the most obvious lessons to be drawn from a depressingly predictable finding is the continued relevance and necessity of women’s colleges.  Every day, Professor Butcher and her colleagues, women and men alike, convey to their students that Economics is a field in which women belong and a field in which women can and will excel.  No college in the country has a stronger track record of educating women economists.  Or a longer track record.  Just a few weeks ago, the department lost one of its legendary figures, Professor Emeritus Marshall Goldman, who began teaching here in 1958.  (I would need the rest of the afternoon to describe Professor Goldman’s contributions to the profession and to this College, so instead I encourage you to read the recent obituaries in the New York Times or the Boston Globe; they are posted on the department’s website.)  At his funeral, one of Marshall’s daughters spoke very movingly about her father’s career-long commitment to the mission of Wellesley College.  Though she didn’t come to Wellesley herself, she grew up hearing her father talk about his work here, and she drew inspiration from his dedication to his students and his absolute belief in their capacities.  Her eulogy was a tribute not just to her father but, in a sense, to the college to which he dedicated his career.

As we embark on this new academic year, my message to you is very simple: the mission that we share as an academic community is more important than ever; it is essential here and now, in the strange spectral light of this eclipse, but it will be equally essential when the eclipse ends, as it surely will, and when a kind of normalcy returns.

So again my warmest welcome to one and all, and I look forward to working with you in the year ahead to advance this mission.