Here on this podium, I may appear to be alone. But that is not the case. With me—within me—are so many who have carried me to this moment.
I am here today because of a 30-year career in women’s health, and my deep commitment to women’s education. I stand before you on the shoulders and hard-won wisdom of so many women who laid the groundwork and pointed the way: my Brooklyn-born mother, Grayce Adina Johnson’s fierce belief in the power of education; my grandmother, Louise Young, who struggled with depression, which inspired me to enter medicine, with the ultimate mission of discovering how women’s and men’s biology differ in ways that go far beyond our reproductive functions.
I stand on the shoulders of my most important mentors and role models: Ruth Hubbard, Harvard University’s first tenured woman biology professor—a scholar who broke with tradition to explore the deep connections between women’s biology and social inequities. Women such as Shirley Chisholm, my “unbought and unbossed” Brooklyn congresswoman who burst on the scene at the crossroads of the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1970s.
In these women, I see the power of education to change women’s lives and create a better world. I see the power of shared experience, shared ideas, shared commitments, across time and space, across cultures and identities. I give gratitude to them and for them. I give gratitude to be here and now, looking at our future, together.
I was drawn to Wellesley by many things—for its extraordinary past and its hopeful future, by its position at the apex of liberal-arts education, by the breadth and depth of its distinguished faculty, by the readiness and relevance of its student body, by the defining, indelible beauty of its campus, by the powerful sisterhood that is the Wellesley alumnae network.
But the most compelling draw was my conviction that the surest way to change our fast- moving and complex world is through empowering women. There is no better place to accelerate and maximize the full potential of women than Wellesley College.
It's often assumed that Wellesley College came into being simply because women lacked opportunities for higher education in the late 1800s, but in fact, there was another reason: it was the compelling vision for democracy and equal opportunity.
Wellesley had its beginnings in Pauline and Henry Durant’s Back Bay living room, where Pauline and some 30 other women came together to tackle the urgent social challenges of post-Civil War industrialization. Their particular concern was the droves of vulnerable young women flooding into cities to work in factories or as domestic servants, with unsafe working and living conditions, fueling the movement known as Progressivism. In response to the fast-growing needs of these young women, Pauline Durant and her allies founded the Boston YWCA—the first YWCA in the nation, now celebrating its 150th anniversary. The YWCA provided young women room and board along with courses in clerical work.
Four years later, in 1870, Wellesley College was founded. As Pauline and Henry Durant saw it, the nation’s future could only be secured through vastly expanded access to childhood education. The future would require teachers, a profession just opening up to women on a large scale.
The Durants’ commitment to socio-economic diversity and expanded opportunity extended to Wellesley College itself, which welcomed students from across the economic spectrum. Indeed, the Durants had a special affection for the less-well-off students, referred to as “calico girls,” whom they saw as every bit the equal of their wealthy “velvet girl” peers.
Today, the vision of the founders of Wellesley carries renewed urgency. We live in an era when the very notion of fact-based knowledge is under fire—in what an Economist cover story chillingly termed a “post-truth world.”
As we prepare for an historic election—one that has a Wellesley alumna on the ballot, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman ever nominated for the U.S. presidency by a major party—we are brought face to face with the gravity of our choices.
The need for a liberal education shines forth brightly—perhaps more brightly—than ever before. Like Henry and Pauline Durant, we live in a time of accelerated change, and the planet-threatening challenges we face have only grown. Climate change, global pandemics, terrorism and violence, widening disparities between rich and poor, globalization—these are just a few of the urgent issues that we now confront. Our future, the world’s future, will hinge on our ability to put aside differences for the common good—to join forces across political parties, across cultures, across belief systems, and across every boundary, virtual and physical, that you can imagine.
But to do so requires a basic grasp of facts—the capacity to distinguish fact from fiction—a core value that is at the heart of a liberal education. In the words of my predecessor Kim Bottomly, liberal education “was designed to be the education truly necessary to ensure good decisions and thus a good society.” In sum, it's the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.
As part of my Wellesley education, I recently came upon a speech by Wellesley’s second president, the charismatic Alice Freeman Palmer—only 27 when she assumed this role in 1882. Amazing. The title is “Why Go to College?” and I was struck by its ongoing and modern relevance, by how clearly I could trace the line between then and now.
Freeman Palmer’s focus was what she termed the “larger gifts of college life.” Interestingly, she opted to spend little time on the benefits of gaining new knowledge—these, she said, “may be assumed.” Instead, her focus was looking far downstream—on the array of lifelong benefits conferred by a college education.
Topping her list were happiness and physical health, which came as a delightful surprise to me. As a physician who has spent my career in women’s health—and as a new college president with a deep commitment to students’ well-being—I was inspired to see how very deep these commitments run.
I was also struck by Freeman Palmer’s focus on the gifts of friendship with people very different from ourselves—foreshadowing our own commitments to inclusion and diversity— and by her view of college as a place where students connect with a larger sense of possibility, a larger vision. To be sure, she deploys religious language that would be out of place today. But her broader vision, her deeper message—her core values—feel very much alive.
Taken as a whole, this early address anticipates what I view as the single most important question for liberal-arts colleges today: How do we unleash the riches embedded in crucial intersections—among people, among ideas, across communities and cultures, through time and space?
Over these past three months, I’ve turned to many of you to listen, to begin to build our vision. I've asked: Where will our efforts yield the greatest possible impact? What are the hallmarks of a great liberal-arts college in the 21st century?
I’ve given these questions much thought, and I want to share three answers—all of which reflect my belief that great transformational change occurs at intersections. I want to speak, in particular, to three key concepts:
• Intersections of academic disciplines;
• Intersections of the liberal-arts college with the larger world;
• And the most important intersection of all: How do we unlock the full potential of these synergies?
1. Let’s start with academic disciplines. I believe that the great liberal-arts college must be ambitious and creative in its efforts to leverage these increasingly important intersections.
Our esteemed faculty is replete with world-class scholars, researcher-teachers who push forward the frontiers of knowledge. But as remarkable as they are individually, they are infinitely more so together, connecting in community, exchanging ideas, and advancing pedagogy. Indeed, it is more apparent with every passing year that no single academic discipline can hope to address the world’s greatest challenges.
To the contrary, our times demand what is often called “T-shaped” expertise—a deep grounding in one area combined with a capacity to think, and work, on a far broader stage.
This message has been coming from all directions. Some years back, a committee of distinguished engineers set out to establish a list of the Grand Challenges for Engineering. The final list of 14 was wide-ranging—from making solar energy economical to providing access to clean water and better medicines. As diverse as they are, each of these Grand Challenges shares one thing: All will require work across disciplines. To work together at the intersection of shared knowledge and pasts to look to the future.
I've also seen this firsthand in my own academic work on women’s health. Biology, sociology, anthropology, history, and literature—all of these have shaped and informed my work in fundamental ways: how I think, how I problem solve, how I view both science and the world. The contributions I have been privileged to make can be directly traced to the power of a liberal education—to the awareness that the way forward lies in the potent synergies that live in intersections.
The arts and humanities merit special attention here. It is through the study of art, literature, history, music, languages, philosophy, and religion that we explore what it means to be fully human. We find our place within traditions that ignite our imaginations. More than any other fields of study, the arts and the humanities fortify us to do the work that we are called to do. If the sciences tell us how, the humanities and arts remind us why.
Which is not to say that the arts and humanities do not also have their practical applications—and far more often than many assume.
One stand-out example at Wellesley is a cross-disciplinary course focused on Siberia’s Lake Baikal, often called the soul of Siberia. The course begins on campus with the study of Siberian literature, religion, and history. Students then travel to Lake Baikal, where they examine disruptions to the lake’s ecology. They come to see how the humanities and sciences build on and enrich each other, all while making real contributions to the science of climate change.
Such marriages across disciplines are the way of the future—and the potential I see at Wellesley is extraordinary.
2. Second, the great liberal-arts college must expand and cultivate its intersections with the larger world.
One of the things that has most struck me about Wellesley students is their yearning to make a difference. To paraphrase the theologian Frederick Buechner, they are in search of that place where their own deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.
This yearning for meaning, for purpose, goes far beyond the anecdotal—and far beyond a transitory youthful idealism. Rather, it is at the heart of what it means to be human.
Recent research points to lifelong benefits from integrating learning with service. While most studies of college graduates have focused on near-term outcomes, researchers from Gallup and Purdue University have sought to get a handle on what happens in the years after graduation. Do certain college experiences correlate with a happy and engaged adulthood?
Their answer: A resounding yes. Two kinds of college experiences in particular stand out: emotional support and deep experiential learning. And the impact is far from minor. Graduates who check both boxes are twice as likely to be engaged in their work and otherwise thriving in adulthood.
Now for some, this may come as a wake-up call. For Wellesley, it’s a clear affirmation of our priorities, of our core values—of our view that service is integral to a liberal-arts education, as embodied in the Wellesley College motto: Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.
One stellar example is the Madeline Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, named for the former Secretary of State and Wellesley alumna. Each year, a group of Wellesley students become Albright Fellows. They work in teams to tackle pressing global challenges—from the refugee crisis to the threats to our democratic institutions. Summer internships take students around the world, while visiting experts—including Secretary Albright herself—bring the real-world practice to Wellesley.
Another excellent example is the We-Lab—and that’s short for the Wellesley Engineering Laboratory—where students devise engineering solutions to real human problems. Here again, learning takes place both on campus and around the world, as students test-drive and implement their innovations. Among recent successes is the installation of an improved rain- catchment system in a Nicaraguan village where water is often in dangerously short supply.
So powerful are these initiatives that they have sparked excitement across our current and prospective student body and among our faculty. More and more, these initiatives and others like them are influencing pedagogy.
Looking ahead, one of my primary goals in leading Wellesley is to build on our current intersections with the larger world. Inner institution-wide transformation tends to start with looking outward.
3. Third, the great liberal-arts college must celebrate and nurture interconnections, with the goal of unleashing the full power of their synergies.
I believe that this starts with a culture of belonging.
In recent years, many have questioned the notion that the colleges should prioritize being warm and welcoming places—the idea being that this is at odds with rigorous learning.
I reject that wholeheartedly. We can—and I believe we must—have a rigorous learning community that is also a true home in the best sense of that word. Regardless of our race, ethnicity, age, religion, physical capacities; regardless of what we believe, where we come from, or who we love—all of us, all of you, deserve to be seen and appreciated for exactly who you are.
This is true of all liberal-arts colleges, but it has a special significance at a school that has as its exclusive mission the education of women to make a positive difference in the world.
For all their many and wonderful differences, Wellesley students arrive with a shared awareness of what it means to be a woman at this historical moment.
They know that, for all the progress women have made since Wellesley’s founding, women face distinctive challenges.
They know that, for all the shattered and cracked glass ceilings, women are still vastly under-represented at the highest levels across professions and industries.
They know that women face a unique set of challenges, including persistent efforts to curtail reproductive rights, inadequate family-leave policies that hit women hardest, and the widespread persistence of unequal pay for equal work.
They also know that the world is far better off with women at the table—or leading the meeting—whether in government, business, academia, or any field where Wellesley women make their mark.
For all of these reasons—and so many more—Wellesley students understand the transformative power of a place where “women’s leadership” is synonymous with “leadership.” A place where their gender will never bar them from reaching their full potential. A place where they will never feel out of place because they are a woman. A place where they are at home.
That said, the liberal-arts college must be a certain kind of home: one where truth and knowledge are seen as primary values, at the core of who we are and what we do. One where it’s understood that growth comes from surmounting challenges—those that exist within us as well as around the world.
The human mind has a tendency to simplify—to reflexively adopt what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie calls the “single story.” This is a story that flattens and reduces. This type of singular story is never true. By contrast, the great liberal-arts college pushes us beyond this—to replace the impoverished single story with a far larger narrative that enriches and illuminates. It recognizes that empathy flourishes on friendship and respect, on exposure to new ways of seeing and thinking. In the words of writer Toni Morrison, we must “visualize, imagine, dream up, and enter the other before we presume to solve their problems or ours.”
So how do we go about this? How do we ensure that we make the most of our many interconnections? How do we fulfill the enormous promise of Wellesley in the 21st century?
We must apply the same spirit of innovation that we bring to science and other academic disciplines to the work of building a community that both provides a sense of belonging and supports the highest standards for liberal-arts education. This isn’t going to happen simply because we want it to. It must be a major initiative—intentional, data-driven, focused on impact.
Wellesley has come a long way from those early conversations in Pauline Durant’s 19th- century living room. At the same time, our original commitments run strong and deep. Happiness, health, friendship, service to a vision far larger than ourselves—these were among the gifts of college cited by Alice Freeman Palmer more than 100 years ago. They remain at the heart of what we do, a touchstone for the ages. Then as now, Wellesley holds a singular vision: To educate whole women to make the world whole.
While time hasn’t changed our core mission, it requires us to evolve—to shape our efforts to fit the needs of the 21st century.
Never in our recorded history has the complexity and speed of change been faster than our ability to keep up with it. Educating the next generation to face this pace of change, this complexity, is the consummate challenge for the liberal-arts college of the 21st century.
This challenge must be met with all the force we have, the force that can be found at the intersections of disciplines, the force of looking outward—whether just outside our doors or to the other side of the globe, the force that occurs when we can, as Toni Morrison put it, “enter the other.”
Now is the time to harness this sense of urgency, and no one is better poised to meet, lead, and indeed minister this challenge, than women—and women with a Wellesley education.
To act on these imperatives will be our responsibility—and our joy.
I as your President hear this call and pledge to mobilize our human and capital resources to live into Wellesley’s greatest possibilities.
This moment is our moment.