President's Speech

2012 Convocation Address: Great Conversations


Wellesley College President H. Kim Bottomly
September 4, 2012

Good afternoon! It’s great to be back for another year. This is Wellesley’s 138th year.

I hope you had a wonderful summer—whether you were traveling, working, doing research, doing an internship, catching up with family and friends... maybe some of you did all of that! Whatever your experience this summer, I hope you are ready to begin the semester. It’s going to be a great year. And it’s going to be a busy one.

Last week, I had the pleasure of greeting a remarkable group of students—the new red Class of 2016. Welcome to our community! This is your community now, and we’re glad you are here. I know your Wellesley sisters are especially happy to see you.

This year, we also welcome to campus 12 Davis Scholars and 13 transfer students. We are pleased you decided to join us.

I would also like to say a special welcome to our five new tenure-track faculty and our new staff. You are all an important part of our community.

To the yellow Class of 2015: Welcome back! As sophomores, you have a lot to teach our first-year students.

To the purple Class of 2014: It’s wonderful to see all of you again!

And a special welcome back to the green Class of 2013! You are now officially the senior class of Wellesley College! I know you will gladly assume this leadership role, and I know you will take seriously the responsibilities inherent in being the senior class. It is your turn to set the tone. It is your turn to lead us with wisdom, honor, and respect. As a symbol of your leadership today, you join the faculty in wearing the traditional academic robes.

This is your year, seniors—enjoy it.

Finally, let me welcome back our faculty and our staff. I hope you all had an enjoyable and productive summer, and, like me, you are looking forward to another great year.

The academic year is already off to a great start:

  • New student orientation was a success, thanks to the many people who made it possible. This includes members of the Student Life Division, faculty, and upperclass student leaders who worked tirelessly throughout the summer to make the program come together.
  • Our athletic teams are off to an impressive start. Our soccer, volleyball, field hockey, and tennis teams kicked off the season this past weekend. I know it’s going to be a great year for the Wellesley Blue.   
  • This summer, we reaffirmed the importance of women’s leadership by hosting the first Women in Public Service Institute here on campus. Forty-nine emerging women leaders from around the world came to Wellesley in June to participate in the Institute, which was a great success. We were fortunate to be able to launch this Institute with a special visit from two Wellesley College alumnae, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, both of whom spoke during the Opening Ceremonies.
  • This year will also be an important year for a project that I hope you have heard about: Wellesley 2025. It is a major, multi-year renovation project to preserve, reimagine, and reinvigorate Wellesley’s living, learning, and research spaces. I’m sure the students here will agree that our residence halls need some long overdue work, and the faculty know that our offices, classroom, research, and art spaces need improvement, too. This project is about more than just preserving what is great about our buildings and landscape. It is about how our beautiful, historic buildings can be made to best support a liberal arts education in the 21st Century.

Convocation marks the traditional start of the academic year. Today, as we begin this new year, I want to pose a challenge to you. This year I want all of you to indulge in great conversations.

Robert Hutchins long ago defined liberal arts education as the study and practice of great conversation. Hutchins said our greatest books are really conversations that the authors had with their contemporaries throughout history. We read these great conversations of the past, and, in turn, we have our own great conversations.

A Wellesley education is already very much about engaging in great conversations. It’s about an exchange of ideas in a supportive environment to further explore those ideas. You have these conversations every day—in your classrooms and labs, in the residence halls, dining rooms... even on the Senate Bus.

I present this particular challenge this year because it could be a difficult year to have conversations that are great. It is a political year—an election year—and throughout the nation, we will see heightened passions, strong biases, rigid stances, and cynical manipulations. But for us at Wellesley, this year should be an opportunity to learn from this historic moment. It will be an opportunity to engage in open dialogue, meaningful exchanges, and great conversations. 

Many issues will come up this fall. Such as:

  • The proper structure of universal health care
  • The equity of our tax structure
  • The cost of college and the quality of education
  • The definition of marriage
  • The meaning of church/state separation
  • The role of government in our economy
  • The role of the United States in the world
  • And many, many more

These are complex issues with no one easy answer. Informing each of these issues are underlying philosophies. The issues are worthy of debate, as are the underlying philosophies.  

I suspect each of you has an opinion on these topics already.  I would expect many opinions here at Wellesley. Recall what Milton said in his Areopagitica: “Where there is much desire to learn, there… will be much arguing... many opinions.... Opinion… is knowledge in the making.”

You have your opinions. Those opinions are based on your personal values; values you have absorbed over the years. As you defend your opinions, be ready also to question them. If you treat your opinions as an eternal truth—as something unalterable—and you automatically dismiss the perspectives of others, you will not gain knowledge. You will not grow. Do not limit yourself by treating the values of others as errors to be corrected. Treat them as opportunities to increase your sophistication.

Always take to heart what Oliver Cromwell said: “I beseech you… think it possible you may be mistaken.” The more you examine your own values, opinions, and beliefs, the better they will become. And this is the perfect year to do just that.

An educated person does not think in slogans. You can not assume that those who disagree with you—even with your most fundamental beliefs—do so because they are unintelligent or morally bankrupt or because they don’t care about other people. Others may be that intellectually lazy. But you are at Wellesley. You cannot be.

Wellesley is a wonderful place to explore your beliefs, to challenge your beliefs, and to engage in important conversations about current domestic and world issues.

What might get in the way of such dialogue? One is fear of peer disapproval. Another is a reluctance to offend, to be thought of as impolite or disagreeable.  Yet another is the reluctance to express an opinion you know to be an unpopular viewpoint on campus. Even during difficult and fraught times, we cannot let these fears hold us back. (Not that I’ve ever known a Wellesley woman to hold back much….)

It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. In fact, it’s a very useful skill. As for unpopular viewpoints—do not deprive us of them. How are we to learn and understand if you remain silent?

And a special word to our international students: This may not be your political system, but you have an important perspective, as well. I hope you will speak up. Share your knowledge.

Great conversations will build community, not detract from it. A good community, like the Wellesley community, emphasizes the need for mutual respect and shared responsibility for the welfare of your Wellesley sisters—all of them. Here, you continually learn to respect the delicate bonds of community life and how to restore those bonds when they are frayed. Here, you make lifelong friendships. These are an important part of your Wellesley education. These bonds will be an important part of your life.

What I hope to see this year is Wellesley College serving as a model for how our nation should conduct itself. Let us, here, show them how it is done. Let us practice being part of a community the way we all think a community should be. Let us commit to ensuring that on this campus, all viewpoints—even those that go against the popular sentiment—are fully articulated and heard, and are debated, and are explored.

This year, let us together model for the world what it means to engage in rigorous, thoughtful, open debate—all while maintaining a supportive and inclusive community.

I look forward to a great year, and to having many great conversations with you.

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