2011 Wellesley in London

In December 2011, President H. Kim Bottomly addressed alumnae in London about Wellesley's vision for the future.

Good afternoon! It is wonderful to see so many of you here today and to know that you have come from all over Europe—from 13 countries—to reconnect to Wellesley and to be part of this important conversation. Thank you for being here. Thank you for participating.

I also wish to thank Laura Malkin, not only for her kind introduction, but for her many contributions as a trustee. I also want to thank everyone who contributed their time, energy, and ideas to make these events happen.

It is a privilege to be here with all of you today and to have this opportunity to update you on what is happening at the College as well to give you a preview of some of the things we are planning for the future.

I love to talk about Wellesley, and it’s always easy to talk about the College’s inspiring history and traditions. But today I want to talk about Wellesley’s future—the opportunities we see ahead of us, and the challenges we face preparing our young women to take their place in the world, just as you have done before them.

Wellesley women have always been determined, resourceful leaders—as academics, as professionals, as members of their communities, and as citizens of the world. And with the state our world is in, that kind of leadership is needed now more than ever. Wellesley, as an institution, must be at the forefront of providing the world with leaders who are smart, determined, resourceful, and experts at getting things done.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their 2009 book, Half the Sky, argue that in these perilous times, women are the key to a nation’s stability and to its growth. I agree that the advancement of women is the most effective and foresighted way to address the constellation of challenges that we all—as global citizens—face. Kristof and WuDunn have it right when they say, “The world is awakening to a powerful truth. Women and girls aren’t the problem, they are the solution.” And they make a strong case for the conviction that “neglecting women’s agency is a huge economic and political error.”

What this boils down to is that women’s agency will be a major factor—and perhaps the single most important factor—in the coming century. The world is newly receptive to accepting women in important leadership roles… and none too soon! It has been Wellesley’s task—for more than a century—to prepare women for those roles and to endow them with the skills and sense of personal empowerment that make them effective as leaders.

That makes this an especially important time for Wellesley.

Throughout my time at Wellesley, I have worked to foster a dialogue about what it means to design and deliver the kind of liberal arts education that cultivates leadership capabilities in our graduates and is relevant in the new global context in which we now live and in which they must be equipped to lead.

Leadership begins in the classroom—and with the quality of the pedagogy that takes place there. We are secure in the excellence of our faculty. But in today’s world, it is not enough simply to know things; it is not even enough to be able to grasp and analyze complex problems and propose solutions. Each student must have the confidence to know that she can do this, the confidence to articulate and defend her analysis, and the confidence to go beyond analysis to see the innovative possibilities that others have missed. In short, she must have the confidence that is required to lead.  That confidence begins and is developed in the classroom. It is also the four years of immersion in the “Wellesley experience” that helps to breed the strength of personal conviction and sense of agency that finally produces the brand of Wellesley women that you yourselves represent.

I noted in my inaugural speech that the 21st century will be the century of the woman. In a distinct break with the past, women now have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to be equal partners in shaping our world and our future. We must educate for those leadership roles. And no one does this better than Wellesley. It is Wellesley who must continue to show the way. It is Wellesley who must show the world just how it is done.

The implications are clear: To remain relevant, to continue to provide women with an exceptional liberal arts education in a world that is technologically interwoven and economically interdependent, Wellesley must address what it means to think globally and must prepare our students to be effective across cultural boundaries.

This is a world none of us has ever known. It is a world our founder, Henry Durant, could never even have imagined. Henry Durant was a visionary—a visionary who believed that any society would benefit from the contributions of well-educated women. He did what was necessary then. To sustain his vision, we must do what is necessary now. That means we must reach out to bring more of the world to Wellesley. And we must venture out to bring more “Wellesley” to the world. It means we must begin to think of ourselves as—and we must strive to become—a truly global institution.

To be effective in this new world, our students must realize that they are only one part of a long, complex story. The world has become one in which our American perspective is not necessarily the dominant—or even the most important—one. Moreover, it is almost certain that when today’s students are my age, the United States will no longer be the undisputed global leader economically, politically, culturally. 

Indeed, dominance is already beginning to shift. It is not enough today to just understand American culture and history, or even to just study the culture and history of other nations. We must also understand how other nations understand our history and how they may disagree with how we understand theirs.

Today’s students must be better prepared than ever by their education to function effectively in a very different world. They must have new skill sets, broader understanding, and the intellectual flexibility to thrive in a climate of unparalleled uncertainty and volatility. They must be prepared for the technological, economic, social, cultural, and political changes that are inevitable and inevitably paradigm-shifting.   

Clearly, these changes demand an interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary, approach to learning—an approach that focuses on creativity and collaboration as much as on more traditional leadership capabilities.

These changes also demand the grounding of the classroom environment in the larger context of actual experience so that students can test their analytical skills against real-world problems and use their creative skills to reframe the way in which those problems are addressed.

As much as we need specialists, we also need the kind of broadly informed thinking that is the hallmark of Wellesley’s approach to the liberal arts.

We are building innovative bridges to this new world. Our Albright Institute for Global Affairs is one shining example of a fresh approach to teaching and learning, as is the development and introduction of more team-taught cross-disciplinary courses. Initiatives like these help us educate the synthetic thinkers who can help capture, make sense of, and extract actionable meaning from a rising tide of information, and who can also transform that knowledge into much-needed wisdom. Just think about some of the world’s grand challenges:

  • Restoration and reimagination of urban infrastructure globally;
  • Preparation for pandemics as well as chemical and biological weapons;
  • Development of improved cybersecurity;
  • Reinventing our financial structures, which requires reimagining political structures;
  • Determining appropriate support to countries in which the citizens are demanding the right to self-determination; the road toward democracy is not an easy one, and it can be easily derailed, as we have seen. 

All of these issues demand a broad, multidisciplinary perspective and collaborative approaches to problem solving. They all require creative synthesis and cooperation. This is precisely what a Wellesley education is calculated to produce—wise, analytical, resourceful, compassionate, sophisticated citizens. 

I think often about what is next for Wellesley—what we must do to become a truly global institution, what we must do to better serve the global community and to thrive in it.

We are on our way to achieving all these things. Today there are more international students at Wellesley, coming from more countries than ever before in our history. Currently, 11 percent of Wellesley students are international, hailing from 69 countries. Unquestionably, those students who come from abroad are mightily advantaged by what the College offers them. But the benefit to our domestic students is perhaps even greater: Living and learning in an internationally rich environment has become a crucial part of their education. 

This process does not take place only on our campus. About half of our students participate in study-abroad programs—currently in more than 40 countries. We are also justly proud of our thriving internship programs; they allow students to extend their experience in “world learning” through work and service commitments. Each year, more than 300 students intern throughout the United States and in more than 30 countries. 

The need to better prepare students for a global future also means that we now provide more courses in area studies and offer 14 different languages. Wellesley introduced Arabic into the curriculum in 2001, and we now also teach Korean, Hindi, Urdu, and Swahili. Wellesley is a leader in its language offerings. An understanding of the world’s languages and cultures is critical to successful engagement in it.

Wellesley’s collective engagement in the world is a two-way street, as Provost Andy Shennan pointed out in this year’s Convocation speech. We send our research and ideas and extraordinary faculty out into the world, and we bring the world back to Wellesley. The traffic is increasingly heavy in both directions. 

A few examples:

  • There was the national and international impact (well noted by the White House) of Professor Susan Reverby’s revelations about an illegal U.S. government medical research study in Guatemala;
  • There was the conference in Morocco organized by the Wellesley Centers for Women on women’s leadership in the Arab and Muslim world;
  • And just this weekend, there was the event featuring  Secretary Madeleine Albright ’59 on the topic “Global Political Challenges: Women Advancing Democracy,” sponsored by Wellesley’s Albright Institute in partnership with the London School of Economics.
  • I can also mention our own Davis Museum’s retrospective of the work of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, itself a moving and thought-provoking commentary on the phenomenon of globalization.

Then there is the Newhouse Center for the Humanities, which has brought to campus writers from Belarus, Slovenia, India, Ireland, the West Indies, Nigeria, Cuba, Guatemala, China, Japan, and others. These visits have not only helped spark conversations about their work, but have brought us a better understanding of how these international writers are helping to reinvent American literature.

So we are already doing much of what we need to do. However, we need to do even more. At the beginning of the last century, Wellesley was a leading institution in the struggle to educate women and bring them to full membership in society. At the beginning of this century, we must ensure that Wellesley continues to be a leading institution for women in this new global world. 

We exhort Wellesley women to make a difference in the world. And they do—you do. Wellesley College itself must demonstrate that it continues to make a difference. Wellesley must be a model liberal arts college in the 21st century—a leader in developing the ideas and initiatives that shape undergraduate education, and a leader in graduating the women who will shape societies and thus the world.

Who better than Wellesley to take this leading role?

Wellesley educates women for leadership. “Leading women” is what Wellesley produces, and leading women to greater influence around the world is what Wellesley must continue to do. With your help, we will do that.

Our plan is to build strategic partnerships. We want to build them in key cities around the world, with influential individuals and organizations, including other colleges and universities, research centers, think tanks, arts institutions, and NGOs—with organizations that have complementary strengths and similar values.

Wellesley will bring the power of its singular approach to the liberal arts—and, not incidentally, the power of its global alumnae network—to the important work of developing the next generation of leaders. Working in tandem with these partner institutions, we will seek the synergy and impact that will lift women everywhere into full participation and help them become important contributors to their societies.

The symposium this weekend is a first step in exploring one potential partnership. Others are right on its heels: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ’69 announced on International Women’s Day in March our launching of an initiative with the U.S. State Department and our sister institutions (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith). The initiative is called The Women in Public Service Project, and it aims to increase women’s participation in public service by building their professional capabilities and supporting their advancement to positions of leadership and influence in government and NGOs worldwide. Next summer, Wellesley will have the honor of hosting this historic collaboration’s first Summer Institute. It will bring to campus emerging women leaders from around the globe for intensive training and valuable mentoring; plant the seeds of a vital international network of emerging leaders; help structure the curriculum for future institutes; and generate a wealth of cross-cultural insight into the ways and means of women’s public-service leadership.

You will be hearing more about these partnerships as they develop over the next few years, but ambitious initiatives like these cannot succeed as an effort of the College alone; for them to be a success, such programs must be embraced, fed, and fostered by the entire Wellesley community.

A key element moving forward will be you, our Wellesley alumnae network; an important part of our work will be enlarging the network’s scope, inclusiveness, and vibrancy. We are working closely with both the leadership of the Alumnae Association and Wellesley’s new Chief Information Officer, Ravi Ravishankar, to identify the social media that will best strengthen our networking capacity and engage you, the alumnae.

Wellesley women already serve as mentors, resources, and friends to each other. They sponsor many of our most prominent internships. They teach in the Albright Institute, and they will teach in the State Department project. 

There is no better representative of what educated women can do to change the world than a Wellesley alumna. So a better linking of our alumnae around the world can only multiply our ability to make a difference.

Our new global initiative is not yet fully formed. Its eventual shape and direction will emerge as we move forward and engage with the interests, wisdom, talents, and connections of our alumnae, and it will depend heavily on your insight, energy, and dedication. 

Never before has the world had greater need of the panoptic education, nuanced understanding, and social-navigational skills that Wellesley women can bring to the international arena. Never before have the benefits of a Wellesley liberal arts education been more apparent or more important. And never before have women—Wellesley women—been better suited, and better prepared, to make a world-changing difference in our shared future.

Educating Wellesley women for leadership has never been more relevant. We have long been at the forefront of liberal arts education and at the forefront of educating women for leadership. We have always preserved our traditions and our strengths while we invested in the future. 

But now we are seeking something further—an even greater involvement in our interdependent global community, and greater engagement and leadership in the world. In our 137th year, Wellesley has a magnificent history to look back on. It also has a very exciting future to look forward to.

Thank you.