2011 Convocation

President H. Kim Bottomly's Address to Students, Faculty, and Staff

Wellesley College Convocation August 30, 2011, Hay Amphitheater

Telling Our Story

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the beginning of Wellesley’s 137th year. This amphitheater, like so much of our campus, is rich with Wellesley history. This particular space dates back to 1936, and it has served as a place we gather to celebrate being a community.

Last week, I officially greeted a remarkable group of young women, the newly arrived yellow class of 2015. Welcome to our community! This is your community now. I know your Wellesley sisters have been eagerly anticipating your arrival. This year, we welcome to campus 574 first-year students, eight Davis Scholars, and nine transfer students.

I would also like to say a special welcome to our 14 new tenure-track faculty and our new staff. You are all an important part of our community, and we are glad you are here.

To the purple class of 2014: Welcome back! You are old hands now—your first year is behind you.

To the green class of 2013: It’s wonderful to see all of you again!

And a special welcome back to the red class of 2012! Seniors, this is your year. It may seem like the end, but you still have one fourth of your time at Wellesley to go. This is a special time in your lives. Take full advantage of it and enjoy it.

Finally, let me welcome back our faculty and our staff. I hope you all had a great summer!

This afternoon I want to talk about stories. Each of us here has a story to tell. This amphitheater has a story to tell. Wellesley has a story to tell.

Let me begin with a story of my own.

This summer, I spent some time in France. We stayed in Cairanne, a walled hilltop village in Provence. Like most fortified hilltop villages, it had impossibly steep streets and structures built into the cliff sides. These villages were built this way for good reason. During the Middle Ages, following the breakdown of Roman law, the region was flooded with invaders and the lawless. So, the local townspeople moved up into hilltop villages, constructing walls for protection. The architecture reflects an area designed to expect attack.

One afternoon, as I was taking in the scenery of that hilltop village, I did something very typical of a Wellesley College president. While leaning on the parapet of the high wall of my village, looking down at the fields where marauding groups used to pillage, I thought about Wellesley.

Like the medieval inhabitants of that village, colleges and universities are under siege these days. There is a public conversation that says that colleges are not doing a good job. There is a growing belief that colleges and universities need to undergo a cost-benefit analysis.

Those leading this public discourse selectively cite studies. Studies, for example, showing that you students spend far less time studying than students did even 10 years ago, and studies showing that faculty don’t work very hard—any time spent outside the classroom is seen as non-productive.

There are studies that purport to show that students are literally learning nothing in their four years of college, and that they are paying increasingly higher tuition to learn nothing. Further, a widespread complaint is that students are not being trained for specific useful occupations. The argument is that liberal arts colleges are not providing relevant education. By relevant they mean that we should evaluate liberal arts education only by immediate economic gains that result from it.

All of these stories are being repeated and retold often. These stories are becoming the norm in current discussions about college education, and yet we know that these stories are misleading generalizations that completely miss the point.

We need to make sure that the value and purpose of higher education gets articulated. We need to explain clearly what we do and why we do it. We need to clarify misconceptions and confront false accusations—accusations that ignore the importance of college education as a public good; accusations that see higher education merely as a way to meet labor demand for “shovel-ready” students; accusations that overlook higher education’s role in satisfying the societal need for wise, creative, analytical, and sophisticated citizens.

Unlike the medieval inhabitants of Cairanne, we cannot just retreat into our own hilltop village and wait for the Enlightenment. Instead, it is time to tell our story. And Wellesley has an important story to tell. Our story is about the power of liberal arts education. Our story is about success in student learning. Our story is about women’s education. Our story is about women who make a difference in the world, and why they do and why they are able to. Our story, ultimately, is about all of you.

Why must we tell our story? We know that the role of storytelling is central to all cultures. In fact, storytelling was critical to the survival of earlier cultures, and it is still important today. Stories are both a celebration of and a rationale for a culture. Stories help members of a group understand and organize things. A belief in certain stories has started wars. A belief in certain stories has inspired terrorist attacks. A belief in certain stories has influenced how people, groups, and institutions are treated by society.

Stories are powerful. True or false, they have an effect. I would argue that today, the future of liberal arts education depends on the story we tell. It depends on all of us telling the Wellesley story. If we don’t tell our story, no one else will. The ill-informed public conversation will continue to be the dominant story, and we will only be able to respond defensively.

Students: I urge you to tell your story about Wellesley. Think about your classroom experiences. For most students around the world, the classroom is about rote memorization—just acquiring information. This is not your classroom experience. Wellesley classrooms involve discussion. They thrive on intellectual discourse. And intellectual discourse is inherently messy, and difficult to measure the benefit of.

Your education is directed at understanding complexity, thinking critically, knowing how to find new information, learning how to learn. Not just learning and analyzing information but hearing and understanding the viewpoints of others. It is not simple, nor should it be. The world is not a simple place.

Your liberal arts education is not designed, as many in our society would wish, to the specification of entry-level employers. Rather, it is designed to enable you to be sophisticated citizens, lifelong learners, important contributors to your society. It is designed not just to enable you to be leaders, but more importantly to have a nuanced understanding of what true leadership means. How many of you become COOs or CEOs is a cost-benefit measurement of leadership. But that is not the right measure. True leadership takes many forms, exists in many venues—on small stages and on large ones—and it is crucially important to the world in every form it takes.

Students: I urge you to also think beyond your classroom experience. You live in a residential community and contribute to an intellectual and social community. Living in a residential community like ours is hard work. But it is valuable work. Think of your gains in interpersonal intelligence and awareness of the people around you. Think about how this develops life skills. Think about how it enhances your recognition of the complexity of social communities. Think about how you learn to respect the delicate bonds of community life and how you learn how to restore those bonds when they are frayed. Think of the lifelong friendships. You have an important Wellesley story to tell.

Increasingly in our society, education is perceived as an economic transaction. We must remind the public of what an enormous societal benefit it is. The world’s leadership core emerges from the educated, from those who are lifelong learners. Only 27 percent of adults in this country have a college degree and far fewer in many other countries. Leadership comes from a small pool, and you are in that pool. You are the women who will take the lead to make the world a better place.

You are preparing to do that here. You are the best evidence of the value and the larger societal benefit of a Wellesley education. Your stories, collectively, help tell Wellesley’s story.

To the faculty and staff: You are the backbone of this institution. Wellesley remains an exceptional place because of your dedication to our students, to teaching and research, and to supporting this liberal arts community.

Keep doing what you do so well. But also, make sure others hear what you do—what you really do, not what ill-informed outsiders think you do. We need your voices and your perspectives to tell the Wellesley story, as well.

Finally, as we listen to politicians and pundits, it can feel as though we are staring down from our fortified village—our ivory towers—looking at the pillaging groups advancing toward us. But unlike the medieval cities I visited this past summer, we can’t just throw rocks, hoping to crush our adversaries. We can’t just turn them back with the logic of our arguments.

We must tell our story. We must honor our story. Our real story must become part of the national consciousness. I urge you to take on the intellectual discourse. Let’s invite those who dismiss our story into our community and create bonds of understanding and respect.

Stories are how we define ourselves and how we construct our identities. Stories link generations of Wellesley women together. Stories can change the world. I hope many of you will share your stories with me, so that I may continue to tell Wellesley’s story.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “What concerns me is not the way things are, but rather the way people think things are.” He was right to be concerned.

Almost two thousand years later, the sociologist W.I. Thomas had a similar reflection. He said, any situation that is defined as real is real in its consequences. Our true stories can help define the situation, and they can influence the consequences.

Let this be the year you tell your story. Let this be the year that together, we tell our Wellesley story.