September 5, 2023

Good afternoon! Welcome to the start of Wellesley’s 149th year!

Welcome to our new faculty, to our new administrative and union members, and to those of you who are returning.

A big welcome back to our sophomores, juniors, and seniors—the keepers of our traditions, both grand and sweet.

Your role here could not be more important, and I want to give a special thank you to our senior class, who persevered as the class to be admitted and experience their first year during a global pandemic. It is so wonderful to be together today under more normal conditions.

And, of course, a special, heartfelt welcome to the incoming yellow class of 2027, to our five new Davis Scholars, and to our 11 new transfer students. We are so happy to have you with us!

To our first-year class, each of you brings enormous academic and personal strengths to Wellesley. Together, you are rich in what Wellesley’s second president, Alice Freeman Palmer, called the “wealth that lies in differences.”

You come from 43 states plus the District of Columbia and Guam as well as more than 26 countries outside the United States. Over half of you speak a language other than English at home. Twenty-four percent are first-generation college students. And 58% are domestic students of color, identifying as African American, Asian American, Latinx, Native American, or multiracial.

This means that you, our first-year students, as is the case with all of our students, should expect to encounter people at Wellesley whose lives and perspectives are very different from your own, and they will help to expand your view of the world.

Wellesley has always been a place for revelations. Since our founding, we’ve believed that one of the most crucial aspects of a liberal arts education is encountering people who are unlike oneself.

Last year, Wellesley joined forces with 32 other highly selective colleges to write an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case considering whether race could continue to be used as one factor among many in college admissions. Together, we asserted that “in a society in which race still matters,” our experience has shown the “educational benefits of a diverse student body and the societal benefits of educating diverse future leaders.” In fact, there is an important body of research that confirms that diverse educational environments improve learning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and leadership skills.

We become larger as individuals because of the diversity of the community. This is a kind of social mutualism that echoes the biological mutualism in the landscape around us. Even the most impressive of the ancient trees on this beautiful campus did not attain its stature alone. It trades the sugars it produces through photosynthesis with networks of fungi at its roots, which bring other nutrients within reach.

It’s estimated that a single teaspoon of soil beneath its canopy contains tens of thousands of different kinds of microbes, some of which it mobilizes to survive stress and fight off disease. The tree thrives through complex associations. So do we.

As all of you know, at the end of June, the United States Supreme Court took away our ability to consider race in admissions, an important tool that Wellesley and other highly selective colleges have long used to ensure that they admit diverse classes.

As an institution, we will, of course, comply with the court’s decision—while remaining completely committed to ensuring the diversity of our students through a need-blind admission process, by recruiting students from all backgrounds, and by continuing to consider students for admission to Wellesley because of their individual strengths and what they will add to the class more collectively.

Of course, the value of diversity is not in representation alone. It is not enough to simply travel through a college career alongside peers with different histories, backgrounds, and identities.

What matters is listening to those peers, developing curiosity about them, fostering appreciation, and, sometimes, closeness and friendship. We strive not just for diversity at Wellesley, but for inclusive excellence, which is the recognition that there really is no excellence without diversity and inclusion. Whether the subject is law, medicine, the sciences, the humanities, or the arts, we need the perspectives of people from different backgrounds and with different life experiences to make progress in any field.

The same is true for our own development as human beings.

And it is in this realm of engagement that Wellesley truly shines. To our new students—we take an unusual, curricular approach to life outside the classroom as well as in it. Our residential life curriculum is designed to spur each of you to grow in important ways: We want you to become your own most authentic selves here while coming to appreciate the equally distinctive individuals around you and acquiring a sense of belonging among them.

Developing a keen sense of yourself and a profound regard for others is the best possible training for success in your chosen professions and for happiness in your personal lives.

It is also simply essential as you step into your roles as college students, inside and outside the classroom—and as citizens in a pluralistic society and a democracy under threat.

Research by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel found that around the globe, the strongest predictor of whether a country is an effective democracy is not the percentage of citizens who say nice things about democracy as a form of government.

A far stronger predictor is the prevalence within a society of what these researchers label “self-expression values.”

Such values include feeling that it is important to be true to oneself, supporting gender equity, being tolerant of all kinds of out-groups, expecting to participate in decision-making, and generally trusting one’s fellow citizens. In other words, individual self-respect, plus an equal respect for others as individuals, seems to be fundamental to free societies.

In 1983, one of the most celebrated artists ever to graduate from Wellesley, Lorraine O’Grady of the class of 1955, illuminated this reciprocity of respect with a performance piece at the Harlem African-American Day Parade titled Art Is … . She created a float with an enormous gold picture frame, and then sent her helpers out into the crowd with smaller gold frames, which they held up to people to create instant portraits.

The point, of course, was that Black people are worthy subjects for art. But the photographs of that day also capture the individual parade-goers’ amusement and delight at considering themselves worthy of framing.

In 2020, when the Biden campaign wanted to communicate its own sense of what it means to lead an inclusive democracy, it borrowed an idea from Lorraine O’Grady. The day the election was called for Biden, his campaign released a two-minute video that within a few days was viewed nearly 40 million times on Twitter. The video captured the breathtaking diversity of America’s people—everyone from health care workers, to surfers, to oyster fishermen, to schoolchildren—all across the country as they proudly held up gold frames to themselves and each other.

The message? Equality and freedom mean that we are allowed to be gloriously different from each other, and this is the beauty of the United States of America.

I am so happy, by the way, that Lorraine O’Grady will be coming to campus in February, and that you will have the opportunity to meet her.

Yes, thoughtful voting is essential to a democracy, but we need to do much more to sustain an inclusive democracy. Countries around the globe have taught us that autocrats can win free and fair elections. They often borrow the forms of democracy while furtively undermining the spirit of democracy.

A democracy that actually empowers the whole of society, on the other hand, requires participation by a wide array of citizens.

But today, in the United States, increasing political polarization discourages many people from participating in our civic life. We have trouble communicating across political divides and across many other fault lines in our society.

It is hard to work together to improve the country’s laws and institutions if we can’t talk to each other civilly, or hear each other with a will to understand, or feel free to express our own views.

Even on this beautiful campus, I have learned that our students are sometimes afraid to reach out across differences. They avoid asking questions of each other out of fear that they will say something clumsy, or that the subject of their questions will resent being put in the role of cultural explainer.

But how else can we learn from each other and come to fully appreciate each other as individuals and as partners in this society? So I urge you to ask the questions: What are you cooking? Where do you come from? Tell me your history! What are you thinking about a given topic, and why?

Wellesley professors Tracy Gleason and Octavio González wrote something very wise recently, as they considered how to encourage civil discourse in Wellesley classrooms: “A large part of the process,” they said, “is getting to know the person behind the position, and the set of experiences and assumptions that have shaped their perspective.” To our students: Try to get to know the person before addressing their position, even a position that seems wrong or incongruent with yours on the surface.

There may be more substance there than you anticipated.

In an autocracy, nothing is more intolerable than dissent, or any kind of break from the conventional line. In a healthy democracy, we need to tolerate and learn from an array of views, not just in our political sphere, but in our communities and lives. Free speech is a prerequisite for the inclusive excellence we strive for on campus, as well as the foundation of democratic participation.

At Wellesley, we have always taught our students that—and many of you have heard this message from me in the past.

But we are teaching it with a new urgency and as an ongoing commitment, now that we have joined the Campus Call for Free Expression alongside other colleges and universities intent on restoring the fabric of American democracy.

This summer, professors Gleason and González and their peers from other institutions came together for a civil discourse workshop.

In residential life, the house presidents and resident assistants prepared for your arrival by practicing constructive dialogue and by considering the kind of intellectual and cultural humility that helps us bridge differences—in other words, thinking hard about ways to create residence halls that will encourage you to stretch and grow.

And just before Labor Day, more than 30 rising Wellesley sophomores gathered on campus to take part in a pilot Civic Action Lab—an immersive three-day experience designed to help them learn to talk across differences, to meet changemakers, and to consider what active citizenship entails. In the next few years, we hope to be able to offer this program to all Wellesley sophomores.

This coming spring, we plan to convene a major summit here at Wellesley focused on strengthening our democracy, featuring former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of the class of 1969 and other women who are at the forefront of this issue in the U.S and globally.

Secretary Clinton recently wrote, “If we can break out of our toxic ‘us versus them’ dichotomies, if we can shrink our notion of ‘the other’ and expand the ‘we in ‘we the people,’ perhaps we can discover that we have more in common than we think.”

I hope that as our students develop confidence in themselves at Wellesley, they will develop equal confidence in their peers—learning to trust them and to assume goodwill even in disagreement.

Inside and outside the classroom, remember to be grateful that you are immersed in different, sometimes contradictory, sometimes astonishing perspectives. Have the courage to explore them with your allies and friends—and with allies and friends in the making.

They will challenge you to develop ideas that are more considered than the ideas you hold today. They will force you to find that common ground among differences that allows our democracy to work. They will demand tolerance, respect, compromise, and creativity from you and help you to grow as students, citizens, and human beings. They will encourage your roots to reach outward and your limbs to spread into the sky overhead. They will make you absolutely magnificent.

I wish everyone here a joy-filled academic year.

Thank you.