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President Nannerl O. Keohane's Charge to the Class of 1991
The Class of 1991 faced a daunting challenge in preparing for this graduation. After the world-wide brouhaha about Commencement 1990, some people worried that you might feel overshadowed as you approached your own ceremony; and the controversy over the new Jewett fence heightened that concern. Last year the Jewett parking lot was filled with sound trucks from all over the world; this year it has disappeared entirely, and the space it occupied is filled with bulldozers and earth moving equipment.
I take your relationship to that parking lot as a symbol of the strength and resilience of this class, and I want to use it as the basis for the charge I want to give you for the future.
When the chain-link fence went up around that familiar space more than a month ago, when the trees were rudely cut down and the familiar landscape plowed away, your initial response, understandably, was one of shock, dismay and anger. But fairly quickly you moved past that reaction, and tried to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation. You showed a good deal of creativity and a great sense of humor as electronic mail messages flew back and forth and Schneider conversations focused on the various alternatives: how shall we hide this monstrosity, the fence? Shall we bedeck it with fresh flowers, or shroud it in green canvas? Shall we top it triumphantly with balloons and streamers in the colors of the class, or cover it with a mural which all of us can contribute?
Having persuaded the administration that since we had created this eyesore we had some responsibility to help remedy the problem, you secured a promise of funds to help you in the beautification effort. And then, as you garnered opinions from across the class, your class reps came together for a decision.
Like the Class of 1990 before you, you were not entirely of one mind as you faced the unwanted intrusion on your Commencement; but like them, you came together in the end and made the best of it. You decided to use only a small portion of the promised funds for a token improvement of the construction site, which now provides challenges to beautification that go well beyond the fence. The rest you voted to have the remainder given to increase your financial aid in honor of your Class Dean, Pamela Daniels and her son Jonathan, so near your own age when he had his tragic fall.
This, members of the Class of 1992, is in the very best Wellesley traditions. You have demonstrated creativity, generosity, and a strong commitment to use your resources to make the world better for others. You have argued and discussed, you have thought about alternatives, and you have reached a solution, rather than expending your energies only in anger, or accepting a solution provided by some outside authority.
Thus the fence, and what you did with it, becomes a fitting symbol of some of the best fruits of your Wellesley education, an education which goes beyond the material you learned in classes or mastered in your research, important as that is to all of you. You have shown that you have learned much about one of the most difficult but most important human arts; the art of living together in a community, where individual human beings always do things and believe things that cause them to jostle up against each other and rub one another the wrong way.
Human beings in any setting have a hard time becoming a real community. It is especially hard to do so when you are one of more than 2000 energetic, articulate, intelligent and imaginative individuals. Sometimes we make fun of ourselves at Wellesley for the inordinate amount of time we spend in meetings, in the intricacies of the democratic process. But it is heartening to see how well you applied, in dealing with the fence, the lessons you have learned from college government, from dormitory life, from being a part of this highly participatory, argumentative and supportive collection of human beings we call Wellesley College.
Such gifts are rarer than you might think in the world outside our borders, and I charge you most earnestly not to forget what you have learned. As our world becomes more and more threatened by various evils that are the unintended result of human action – pollution, destruction of the environment and of many species, epidemics, poverty , overcrowding, drug use, homelessness, despair – it is especially incumbent upon us to develop those arts of human interaction that are our only hope for salvation from such ills.
Only by finding better ways to join our talents for good, overcome our differences, think beyond our own narrow egotistic situation and put our creativity and intelligence collectively to work, can we ever hope to overcome the problems we as human beings have created. The world needs these peculiarly Wellesley skills that you have demonstrated so well this spring, and I charge you to take them with you and consciously use them to improve human interaction wherever you may be.
You might think that this takes us far beyond the fence, and so it does; even as sturdy and ugly an object as that fence can hardly bear all the rhetorical weight I’ve put upon it here. So let me use the fence as the symbol for a more modest, but equally heartfelt charge that I would also share with you in closing.
One of the reasons the destruction of the parking lot and the resulting fence were so unpleasant to you was that they marked a vivid and unwelcome change in the familiar campus scenery. You said, reasonable enough, “Why couldn’t they at least have waited till we graduated?” And you did not mean simply, why couldn’t thy have delayed that eyesore so it wouldn’t spoil the commencement process; you also meant, why do they have to introduce so abrupt an alteration just when we are beginning to feel nostalgic about our four years at Wellesley and hate to see the place changing before our very eyes?
Here I can sympathize with you most ardently. Just after the class of 1961 graduated exactly thirty years ago, the Trustees and administration in their wisdom saw it fit to completely reroute the campus roads, leaving hardly a strip of pavement unchanged from one entrance of the college to the other. In fact they obliterated the very entrance itself, which used to be directly through the Fiske Gates that open the Town of Wellesley past the new dorms and the Science Center.
Thus when I returned to campus only two years after graduation, expecting a nostalgic rush of sentiment as I relived my college years, I couldn’t even find my way around. Members of my class took this as a direct and personal affront; such fundamental changes destroyed the locus for our memories and turned it into something quite different, thus in a sense undermining the memories themselves. Yet changes does not have to come, even on a college campus: and just as you thrived in that modern Science Center that some alumnae have yet to come to terms with as an intrusion upon our Gothic bliss, so the classes of the late 90’s an the 00’s will flourish in our new Museum and Cultural Center, and the fence and parking lot will be forgotten.
You have experienced, even before graduation, the disquieting realization that the college will not be the same when you come back to it, even if you return this summer or next fall. The people who are here will have moved on to other priorities, other new faces will soon join them and our own place will not be the same. Instead of your secure status as a member of the senior class, you will be one among many thousands of alumnae.
But you have also been assured that you will continue to matter to Wellesley, and Wellesley will continue to matter to you, wherever you may go. The College is not so much a physical place, or a set of buildings, as a community, tens of thousands of people who join in loyalty to an idea and a set of values, who share memories and hopes for purposes for Wellesley and for the strengths it represents.
These things are much more important than the changing configuration of the campus. Your class has good reason to understand this lesson much earlier than most classes that have preceded you. You can immediately appreciate the motto of our capital campaign “Ever new, Ever Wellesley”. And thus I charge you, as members of the Class of 1991 of Wellesley College, to retain your strength and flexibility in the face of worldly changes, and to hold fast to the memories and hopes and purposes that make up Wellesley at its best, wherever you may go.