Convocation 2018

September 4, 2018

Good afternoon!

Faculty, students, and staff: I am thrilled to welcome you to campus at the start of Wellesley’s 144th year.

A special welcome to the incoming purple Class of 2022. I am so happy that you are here. 

Welcome, too, to our 13 new Davis Scholars and our 20 transfer students, to our new faculty, and to our new administrative and union members.

And a heartfelt welcome back to the great green Class of 2021, to my own red Class of 2020—we arrived the same year, and I will always be one of you—and, last but far from least, to this year’s seniors: the incomparable yellow Class of 2019. Please know that right now, I might be wearing academic robes, but under these robes I am wearing yellow in your honor! It has been such a joy to watch you thrive and grow—and it’s not over yet! May your final year as Wellesley students be all that you hope for.

Here on campus, much of this summer was spent in preparation. Some of these efforts are clearly visible—I think of the care that’s gone into stewarding our beautiful buildings and grounds, thanks to Facilities Management.

But much more went on behind the scenes. This has been a time of deep reflection for many of us. For all our diversity, a single question runs through this community: What does Wellesley need to be at this pivotal moment in human history?

When Wellesley and her sister—her sib—schools were founded, women had few options for higher education.

I don’t have to tell you that this has changed dramatically. And yet, Wellesley is stronger today than ever before. Consider that our applications have jumped 17 percent in each of the past two years—a leap far surpassing many other top schools.

Today, all of us are here because we choose to be. Because we recognize the unique power of this community. We share a profound appreciation for what Wellesley offers—an environment of fierce challenge and equally fierce support, a place where young women grow into the fullness of their possibilities. 

While on vacation last month, I had a chance to watch the movie Wonder Woman, again, with my 17-year-old daughter, Kate. From the start, I was struck by parallels with Wellesley. 

The future Wonder Woman comes of age on the island of Themyscira. It’s an all-woman community set apart from the larger world. A community based on shared values, intergenerational support, and respect. There, the young Diana grows powerful. There, she gains the strength to run towards, not away from, danger—to fight for her deepest values in service to humanity.

This is what I want Wellesley to be for all of you:

A place where you are both challenged and nurtured.

A place where you grow strong.

A place that provides the safety you need to grow into your fullest powers.

Safety. That’s a word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In recent years, college students—maybe even some of you—have been mocked for asserting this need. “Snowflakes,” that’s the term that we sometimes hear.

I have a different perspective. As a physician, I know that safety is a fundamental human need. Without it, we’re in survival mode. We can’t hope to learn and explore in the ways that fuel growth.

That said, our needs for safety are not fixed or static. The stronger we grow, the more we can stand up to whatever life throws at us. The stronger we grow, the more fully we can own our power.

Which brings us to the question of values. Power is not an end in itself. It has a moral context. What will each of us choose to do with the power we’re privileged to hold?

At the heart of liberal arts education is the search for truth. We seek to push forward the frontiers of knowledge. We value rigorous debate and reasoned discourse. We believe in science. We believe in facts.

But critical as these goals are, they are not our only purpose. Along with adding to what we know, we must clarify what we believe. What is the bigger picture that gives our lives meaning?

From the start, Wellesley was imbued with a moral mission. Originally, this moral mission was rooted in Christianity, as was true for other schools of this time and place.

The Harvard motto, Veritas, is sometimes invoked to suggest that truth should be our exclusive focus—that this is the singular concern of higher education.

But history belies this claim. On an older version of Harvard’s shield, the word Veritas is surrounded by the phrase “Christo et Ecclesiae”—which translates as “Truth for Christ and the Church.”

Of course, much has changed since then. Religion is no longer central in education. Whatever your convictions, we are stronger for your presence. We welcome everyone, regardless of beliefs.

But this is not to say that Wellesley no longer has a moral mission. Far from it. Indeed, at this moment in history, it is more important than ever.

This year, we will be exploring what this mission means—what it should mean—as we begin a community-wide planning process that will include students, faculty, and staff, to identify priorities for Wellesley’s future. 

While this process has not yet begun, we do not start from scratch. As a community, we already share certain fundamental values.

One of the most important is an ethic of care—caring not only for ourselves but also for each other and for the larger world. We see this in Wellesley’s Latin motto—Non Ministrari sed Ministrare, which translates as “Not to be ministered unto but to minister.”

But if this ideal is shared, we have yet to agree on what it looks like in practice. What it looks like for us as a community and for each of us as individuals. How do we live an ethic of care in a time of fear and division? 

The path forward is often unclear and riddled with potential hazards. This is evident right now, as we will struggle to revise a policy that reflects our commitments to both freedom of expression and campus safety. 

What do we do when these two core values seemingly run up against each other? We can only find a path forward as a community.

Right now, given events in our country, many of us are angry—and for good reason.

We’ve watched immigrant children torn from their parents at the Mexican border. 

We’ve watched climate change take a growing toll on the world we share.

We’ve watched people of color be profiled and targeted everywhere from city streets to institutions of higher education. The same is true of gender-nonconforming people—and many others who face grave risks simply because of who they love, what they look like, or where they come from.

We’ve watched women’s rights come under attack on multiple fronts, with the U.S. Supreme Court now poised to gut if not overturn Roe v. Wade.

We’ve watched democratic norms come under fire to the extent that alumna Madeleine Albright warns of fascism. 

The list goes on.

Against such a backdrop, it is natural to feel anger.

This anger in itself is neither good nor bad. What matters is what comes next.

Many of you have probably seen Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby’s acclaimed Netflix special.

Anger—women’s anger—is central to her message.

Towards the conclusion she says: “I am angry, and I believe I’ve got every right to be. But what I don’t have a right to do is spread anger.”

I could not agree more.

But that is not to say that anger should be repressed or erased. Anger is energy. Anger can be fuel. The challenge, as I see it, is to use our anger wisely.

Again, I think of Wonder Woman. Can we, like Diana, find a way to use anger on behalf of love?

I very much hope so, because I believe that our future depends on it.

I am reminded of these beautiful words from U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, our Commencement speaker last spring: “The greatest challenge incumbent upon you is learning to love others in ways they may be incapable of loving themselves, and of trusting them—giving them the reason, the wish—to love you in kind.”

During my two years as Wellesley’s president, I’ve thought a lot about empathy. How do we foster it? How can we create a culture of understanding?

It’s one of those things that is great in theory but hard to put into practice. This is especially true when tensions run high, as they do today. It’s awfully hard to empathize when you feel threatened.

I deeply believe in the power of empathy. I have seen it firsthand. But I also recognize that it can sometimes be a bridge too far. Empathy takes strength. And we may not always have that strength to tap—at least not yet. 

So how do we move forward?

A little more than a week ago, we learned of the tragic death of Sama Mundlay, a member of the Class of 2020. This brilliant young woman—an international relations and history major—was involved in a road accident in Amsterdam. She was to study there this fall at Vrije Universitat.

My heart breaks for her family—and for all of you who were her friends and her teachers.

But even as we mourn her loss, let us honor Sama with renewed commitment to ourselves and to each other. Let us never take for granted our opportunities—and each other.

Sama loved Wellesley. In a 2016 essay published on Medium, she sang the praises of women’s education. “The strongest case for women’s colleges,” she wrote, “is that they allow more resistance to that nagging inner voice, the one that coaxes the docile, unconfident woman your culture wants you to be.”

Rereading these words a few days ago, I was struck by how beautifully they captured what we aspire to be.

So how do we move forward?

It occurs to me that we might do well to start with curiosity. Curiosity is at the heart of the pursuit of truth and knowledge. And it is also essential to developing empathy. It’s a quality that we are accustomed to bringing to scholarly endeavors. 

But we must also approach our fellow humans with this same open spirit—with the same lively interest with which we approach our studies and research.

What is your opinion?

Why do you hold that opinion?

How did you come to hold it?

More than 60 years ago, the great journalist Edward R. Murrow invited Americans—some famous, some unknown—to write short essays about their deepest convictions. “This I Believe” —that was the name of the series—became a cultural phenomenon. It ran from 1951 to 1955 and since then has been revived a number of times. Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, and Isabel Allende are among the eminent women who have published such essays.

As we embark on a new academic year, I urge you to try your hand at one—and to talk to each other about it. Reflect on your own moral mission—the values that you hold dear. Get curious about yourselves—and about each other. In sharing, you may discover new sources of strength. Curiosity may turn out to be a prelude to empathy.

What do you believe?

How did you come to believe it?

In line with the original invitation, here are two suggestions:

First, be highly personal. Explain how you came to hold your most cherished beliefs and what caused them to grow.

Second, stay in the affirmative: Reflect on what you do believe, not what you oppose. Stay focused on your North Star, the values that draw you forward.

It’s only fair that I go first, right?

So in closing, I will kick things off:

I believe in the power of fierce love—a love that both challenges and nurtures us to be more and better.

I believe that every person deserves to feel safe, secure, and supported—that only then can we grow into the fullness of our potential.

I believe in the power of our voices and our stories—that through both sharing and listening we grow both closer and stronger.

I believe that how we define courage will go far to define the future.

And more than anything today, I believe this:

That the Wellesley Community—like Themyscira—has transformational powers, and through you, our students, we will change the world. 

Welcome back!