2010 Convocation

H. Kim Bottomly
Wellesley College Convocation
September 7, 2010

The Love of Learning

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the beginning of Wellesley’s 136th year. We celebrate today’s event in our impressive and elegantly restored Alumnae Hall, newly named after my impressive and elegant predecessor, Diana Chapman Walsh. As is so often the case at Wellesley, we are simultaneously celebrating both the new and the old. We recognize the power of innovation as well as the strength of tradition. We cherish our history while anticipating our future.

When I spoke to the first-year students and their parents during my first year here, I was speaking in this building to a room full of incredibly bright, and very excited, incoming students. Yes, yellow class of 2011, that was you – the first class I had the honor of seeing through all four years at Wellesley! I was struck at the time by the symbolism of welcoming you -- Wellesley’s future -- in a building that represents our rich past – a building that is an important symbol of the legacy of our alumnae. One of the clearest manifestations of that legacy is the beautiful Alumnae Achievement award gallery that is now a significant feature of this building. I hope you have a chance to go and look at the pictures of our incredible alumnae.

To continue that theme, I’d like to welcome the remarkable incoming – purple – class of 2014. You are a spectacular group of young women. This year, the proportion of our admitted students who chose to attend Wellesley College was the highest it has been in 10 years. We didn’t use our wait list. While this required some adjustment, it is great news. It speaks to the strength of our reputation worldwide. And when I mention the classes of 2011 and 2014, our great bookends, I am not forgetting the important books between. Our wonderful red class of 2012. And our marvelous green Class of 2013. Welcome back. It is good to see all of you again. Our first years can tell you that the orientation theme this year was “you belong.” That applies to all of you. All four classes, all of our faculty, all of our staff. We are a unique and special community. We all belong.

For the Class of 2011, this is the year in which you must wrest every last experience you can from
Wellesley. It is tempting, I know, to let the anticipation of what comes next make you impatient with what you are doing now. I encourage you seniors not to look too far forward too soon. Savor the present. The future will come soon enough.

I also welcome our 12 new faculty members. This renewal of our faculty ranks brings our campus a
new cohort of impressive young scholars and teachers who, like our incoming class, begin a new phase
of their intellectual life as a part of our Wellesley community.

The process of welcoming newcomers to our community provides the opportunity to think about
what we do at Wellesley and why we do it well. What we do is sustain a liberal arts community –
a community devoted to a love of learning. If someone were to ask what the value of liberal arts
education is, a simple answer might be: to instill the love of learning and provide the tools to do it.
The Convocation each year is a reminder that we must sustain this community. Every year we bid
goodbye to longtime faculty and welcome new faculty. Every year we bid goodbye to seniors and
welcome new first years. The liberal arts community continues unbroken and undiminished, but
the continuation is not an automatic process. We must work at it. We must reaffirm and recreate
this community each year. It is an important task. We are not a great college because of individual
achievements – although we have more than our share of spectacular ones. We remain a great college precisely because of this community.

All the members of this community share the love of learning that is core to our mission. It is easy
to forget what a remarkable thing it is – this kind of community. What a rare thing it is to be part of
a community constituted for, and dedicated to, the love of learning. It is often difficult to explain
to the public at large why communities like this are important. They focus on measurable student
learning, hours spent studying, faculty teaching loads, types of courses being taught, and other easily
quantifiable things. They never measure the most important attribute that we strive for as an outcome –
an attribute that can change the world, and has on many occasions – the love of learning.

We should all remind ourselves of how fortunate we are to be part of such a community and should
value it appropriately, never taking it for granted or failing to take advantage of its many opportunities.
For students, this might mean participating in community endeavors that you might otherwise ignore.
It means broadening your perspective, recognizing that you are a part of this community and exploring
the ways you might benefit the community with your contributions. For faculty, this might mean
populating the audience at presentations outside your field, reaching across disciplinary boundaries,
finding unique ways to discover and express your common interests. It is important occasionally to
remind ourselves that we each have a responsibility for sustaining this community. We live in a world
that pulls us apart. Oddly, even while keeping us in communication like never before, it pulls us apart.
It is crucial that we recognize the importance of active community building in this era. The old ways
of bringing us together don’t work as well anymore, and we all need to actively seek the new ways
that will work. Students feel busier than ever. Faculty no longer have the time that once existed for
important informal gatherings. We must acknowledge this as a problem to be solved.

In July, I participated in the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado. Currently in its sixth year,
the Aspen Ideas Festival is a gathering of thought leaders from around the country and the world
who come together to consider a range of subjects. The event includes ongoing discussions and deep
dives into timely topics with various formats including panels and interviews, all involving extensive
audience participation. There are also deliberately organized, more casual gatherings that provide the
opportunity for networking and the additional exchange of ideas. As everyone at this meeting spoke of
what a wonderful intellectual experience it was – and it was – what really struck me was how fortunate
we are here at Wellesley. We have a microcosm of that week constantly. It is our everyday life.

One of the panels in which I presented was entitled “What is the Purpose of Higher Education in
the 21stst Century?” I was asked to open the discussion, and I began by reflecting on the incredible
strength of our institutions of higher education in this country. In particular, and importantly, I pointed
out that the U.S. has developed and sustained a model of higher education that is unparalleled in
the world: the liberal arts curriculum. I enjoyed speaking about the purpose of higher education to
an audience that included many who were skeptical about its value. These were all bright, well-
informed and, more importantly, powerful thought leaders from around the country. And there was
strong feeling among some that places like liberal arts colleges were outmoded relics of a time that
no longer exists. I hope I changed some minds that day, but this will be a continuing battle into the
future. Confronting these well-spoken and well-intentioned skeptics was a useful exercise for me in
thinking about Wellesley’s future. A recent issue of The Economist asked, “Will America's universities
go the way of its car companies?”1 This is a growing belief. I hope our faculty will become engaged in
helping to articulate the arguments that demonstrate the continued importance of a liberal education. It
will be necessary to make these arguments.

Wellesley has sustained its reputation over the years because we have remained true to our academic
traditions. We teach the basics well in the classical manner. We always have. We always will. But
just as important, we have not shied away from innovation and from being responsive to the changing
state of knowledge and innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Last year, for instance, we
launched three initiatives – each of which demonstrates the fundamental value of Wellesley’s liberal
arts curriculum and its ability to be adaptive. These initiatives shared a common theme: solutions to
complex modern problems require knowledge, leadership and the ability to integrate diverse streams
of information. There is no better foundation for integrating knowledge across disciplines than a liberal
arts education – an education that stresses the intellectual power of the humanities, the social sciences
and the sciences. Those skeptics we hear so often from today who would diminish the humanities fail
to recognize that they are a crucial and indispensable part of the intellectual mix that will lead to the
kind of thinking that will solve modern problems. This, I believe, is the most powerful response to
those skeptical about the purpose of liberal arts in higher education.

I am grateful to those members of our community who are working to further enhance the quality of
our educational program. The launch of the new first year seminar program is one example of those
efforts. I am pleased also that Wellesley is about to take the next important step in the sustainability
arena, and I am looking forward to our expansion of the diversity and inclusion work already begun
in the Student Life Division. I am also grateful to those members of our community who spend so
much time remaining experts in their increasingly complicated specialties while still finding the time to
seek ever more creative ways to communicate this knowledge in order to more effectively educate our
students.

These efforts and others will help us make sure we preserve what makes Wellesley the unique
community that it is, while adjusting and adapting to significant and inevitable changes in both
education and society at large. Our goal is to have Wellesley College continue as one of the top liberal
arts colleges in the world and to become even more widely recognized as such. Our goal is also to
have Wellesley be the premier destination of choice for all bright and promising young women. With
community effort, this can be accomplished. We must continue to do what we do so well. We must
maintain this community joined by its love of learning. We must continue to keep in mind what Saint-
Exupery said:


“If you want to build a ship
don’t herd people together to collect wood
and don’t assign them tasks and work
but rather … teach them to long
for the endless immensity of the sea.”2


Let us here at Wellesley continue to instill that metaphorical longing for the immensity of the sea.

We need those ships.

1Economist,

2Attributed

September 4th-10th, 2010.
to Saint-Exupery, La Citadelle, 1948