President's Address

President Diana Chapman Walsh's Charge to the 1997 Senior Class

Ah ... seniors, this is my moment to bid you good luck and farewell. You sense, I think, as I do that there won't be another graduating class that will mean as much to me, won't be another moment for this twelfth president as sweet and nostalgic as this one is -- back in the big white tent with you, four years on.

We are older, now, stronger, wiser, to be sure, chastened a bit by challenges faced and mistakes made, more realistic and readier for challenges yet to come, more accepting of our own limitations and all that we have still to learn. I've learned important lessons with you, from you, the green Wellesley class of 1997; you have taught me much and I'll remember you.

I'll remember my first opportunity to welcome an incoming class. I wasn't officially here yet but played hooky from Harvard to greet you and your families that day. Janet Lavin Rapelye, the dean of admission, made me an honorary member of your class. I'm not sure she actually has the authority to confer such an honor, but never mind. I told you then that I was sure you would live up to the high expectations the college had for you ... and you have.

That first year -- our first year -- was a whirlwind of celebrations, transitions, traditions: an all-campus picnic on October first to welcome a new president, the dedication a few weeks later of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, and then, in late April, the big white tent for the inauguration.

The postings on public bulletin started out with a critical edge (as they so often do; some day you'll tell me why). How dare the administration squander money on that big white tent?" someone blustered. "Shouldn't they be spending it on something useful, like financial aid, or dormitory food?"

But after a while the "BWT," as it came to be known, had magically transmogrified into an object of admiration, even affection -- students were sleeping under it and writing odes to it and, finally, mourning its passage when it had to go. So we've brought it back.

In retrospect, I think your class developed a taste for community in that celebratory first year. For you have worked hard in your time here to understand and to create the conditions under which true community can thrive in this beautiful space, buffeted as all post-modern institutions now are by complex and contentious cross winds.

I want to commend you especially for that vital work. You will be remembered for it:

* for the intelligent and measured input you provided into the discussions of the curriculum review, even knowing that none of the changes would affect your class (you were "grandmothered" in);

* for the durable compromise on Lake Day we reached in your sophomore year;

* for the creation of Molly's Pub in your junior year and, this year, its conversion into such a rousing, rollicking success that the fire marshals are having apoplexy.

You strengthened our athletic, theatrical, musical, artistic and religious life programs. You made of the first-ever Ruhlman conference a breathtaking display of intellectual range, depth, and mastery, as well as a joyful community-wide celebration of student achievement. You created Wellesley History Week, a new tradition that I hope will endure.

And the sophisticated and constructive multicultural coalition you mobilized and led this winter and spring has stimulated a deep, honest, and promising discussion of the racial climate on campus, a discussion that will certainly continue in the months and years ahead. We will be better for it, thanks to you. 

So ... seniors -- 1997 -- you leave a legacy, and the thoughts I want to leave with you as you prepare to take your leave are thoughts about the legacies you are inheriting and carrying on as Wellesley women going out into the world, ready to lead us into a new century fraught with uncertainty and challenge.

Let me do that by taking a page out of your book and invoking Wellesley's history, one hundred years ago, at the last century's end.

The first official inauguration at the college was in September 1899, when Wellesley's fifth president, Caroline Hazard, assumed office. This was a time of great vulnerability and uncertainty for the college. Wellesley was nearly bankrupt, with a debt of $100,000 and no endowment.

Hazard's predecessor, Julia Irvine, had made some hard decisions, strengthening the faculty and emphasizing scholarship over the evangelical orthodoxy that had been so fundamental to Henry and Pauline Durant's original vision.

There were, as a result, the usual tensions that accompany institutional change. But the struggling college was facing a much deeper crisis as well, a growing social backlash against the principle of higher education for women.

And this is the legacy I believe your class has picked up and advanced. 

The soul of Wellesley College -- and its future -- were up for grabs as described in a fascinating history entitled In Adamless Eden. The college owed its existence to Henry Durant's deep belief in women's intellectual capabilities. But he believed equally strongly that even highly-educated women should adhere to the Victorian ideal of pious, pure and submissive womanhood.

The faculty and students assembled by Durant to embody his vision soon began to chafe at the contradictions in his views about women. Gradually the balance of power shifted over to the faculty.

Then, after Durant had passed on, the easy way out for Wellesley was the direction Julia Irvine seemed to be headed -- and the direction taken by the major research universities gathering steam -- toward a specialized, detached, and objective scholarship eschewing the messy hurly-burly of political activism and social reform. According to one history professor writing at that time the college was "in danger of being obscured by the merely academic." (IAE: 54)

But many members of the Wellesley faculty were committed to educating well-rounded women who would not only develop their intellectual capabilities to the full, who would not only dedicate themselves to a life of learning and thinking, but who would also step out of the privatized sphere of home and hearth (where Durant had imagined them) onto the public stage of political activism and professional careers. They would apply rigorous analysis and serious scholarship to the responsibilities of public citizenship and social reform.

And because they had a cohesive community -- an intellectual community -- that combined a commitment to scholarship with a passion for justice and social reform, the faculty were able to develop and implement their radical ideas, ideas, by the way (as will be familiar to those who have visited the Davis Museum exhibition on the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts Movement) that were part of a larger social reaction to dislocations caused by rapid industrialization and urbanization at the end of the 19th century.

The faculty lived their ideals, they didn't merely profess them. They practiced them in a community of mutual concern and support. They anticipated Gandhi's profound insight that to effect social change, we have to "Be the change we want to see."

Now, you may be wondering, what does all of this dusty institutional history have to do with you as you prepare to take your places at the end of the 20th century, faced as we are now not with an industrial revolution but a technological one, with complex and deep fissures along cultural, racial, and ethnic lines? See if you hear the answer in these closing lines from Adrienne Rich's 1980 poem "Heroines," speaking about (and to) women such as those who comprised Wellesley's early faculty:

you begin speaking out
and a great gust of freedom
rushes in with your words
yet still you speak
in the shattered language
of a partial vision
You draw your long skirts
deviant
across the nineteenth century
registering injustice
failing to make it whole
How can I fail to love
your clarity and fury
how can I give you all your due
take courage from your courage
honor your exact legacy as it is
recognizing as well
that it is not enough?

My charge to you today is this: Register injustice with clarity and courage, as you have done here in many different ways. Make of your lives an elegant and challenging argument. Live -- embody -- the ideals you espouse. Be the change you want to see. And don't forget those pioneering women who never forgot about you.

They knew that they were not inheriting Wellesley from the women who had preceded them but rather were borrowing this college for a time from those still to come -- from you. And in the face of obstacles and defeats, they took their solace in the knowledge that you would come along to honor their exact legacy as it is and to recognize as well that it is not enough.

Go out into the world, now, mindful of the legacies you will be called to leave. Make the world a better place in every way you can. Reach out to other women. And remember this special place. Virginia Woolf wrote that to support her creativity a woman needs a room of her own. In Wellesley women have a college of their own.

As you go out today to begin forging a world of your own, don't forget this eccentric and daring college that nurtured you. It was here for you because of the generations of women who nurtured it. It will be here for you for the rest of your lives in all sorts of surprising ways. Please do stay connected, wherever you may go.

And -- 100 years from now -- this college will be here for the next generation of women ready to honor and extend your legacy, if those of us who have been touched by it continue to live up to the high expectations it has for all of us -- and only if we do. I hope you will. I know you will.

God speed to you all.

Related

1997 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

Read the full citations.