Business Leadership Council (BLC) Plenary Dinner Keynote
It’s such a pleasure to be with you this evening—especially given the theme of this year’s plenary. As you know, women’s health and well-being has been a through line for me, one that’s carried me from medicine and public health to women’s education.
It’s also been a through line for Wellesley—something I was thrilled to discover just before my inauguration.
When Wellesley’s second president, Alice Freeman Palmer, spoke of what she called “the larger gifts of college life,” she held out happiness and physical health as among the most important.
More than a century later, these commitments live on. And they are at the heart of our highest aspirations: to create a place where every student has what she needs to flourish.
This is a busy and exciting time at Wellesley. We have major building and renovation projects, most notably the construction and renovation on Science Hill. We are working to move our campus toward carbon neutrality while also addressing substantial deferred maintenance needs. And throughout, we are looking to enhance and enrich the student experience, both within and beyond the classroom. The list goes on.
Amid this day-to-day activity, it’s important to remain focused on an overarching goal: to advance the well-being of our students and the larger world.
I’m so grateful to all of you for reminding me of this—and for this opportunity to re-connect with this fundamental goal.
In recent weeks, I’ve delivered a number of campus updates to various groups: parents, students, alumnae. But for tonight, I was inspired to do something a bit different—to present my update in the context of this larger vision.
Let’s start with what goes on in our classrooms and laboratories, the heart of a liberal arts education.
When we talk about liberal arts, we are not talking about specific disciplines. Rather, we point to a way of engaging with knowledge, ideas, and the larger world. Our focus is not confined to the what. It’s also the how and the why.
The liberal arts perspective is profoundly cross-disciplinary, even what has been called contra-disciplinary. I take this term from Ashoka University’s Professor Saikat Majumdar, who two years ago served as a fellow at Wellesley’s Newhouse Center for the Humanities. As many of you know, Ashoka University was established in 2014 to be India’s first private Ivy League-caliber liberal arts university. Among its founders—and the only woman—is BLC’s Harshbeena Sahney Zaveri.
So, what does it mean to be contra-disciplinary? It means that students actively engage with subjects all too often seen as mutually exclusive—recognizing that, to the contrary, they enrich each other.
I’m delighted to see so many students doing just that. One of these is Avery Lumeng, class of ’21, who is majoring in American studies but also has a keen interest in computer science.
These skills served her well last summer when she interned with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. There, she created a database of all 7,383 state legislators and candidates running for their seats. She also used public data to craft voter contact strategies for the 2019 elections in Virginia. She talked about this at last month’s Tanner Conference, our annual celebration of the relationship between liberal arts education and the world beyond our campus. She said: “I always thought I’d have to choose—that computer science would be on the side—but those are the skills that made me especially valuable.”
This is liberal arts at its best: creating the conditions for students to see how all facets of their education enhance and inform each other—and doing so in ways that empower them to make a difference, empower them to solve problems.
For this to happen, all disciplines must feel equally accessible to all students, the STEM fields no less than the humanities and social sciences.
Historically, this has been tricky with STEM outside of Wellesley. Wellesley has a long and proud track record of educating women for STEM careers. As we cleaned out Sage to ready it for demolition, some of this powerful history was brought back. Henry Durant sent Sarah Whiting, a physics professor, and other science faculty to Germany to learn the latest science and techniques for them to bring back to Wellesley. We found tucked away in a closet one of the earliest X-ray machines that Professor Whiting rigged with students after she attended a lecture by Roentgen, and we have some of the earliest X-rays. In 1886, Winifred Edgerton Merrill, a Wellesley alumna, was the first woman to receive a PhD in math in the U.S. She was also the first woman admitted to Columbia.
This powerful tradition continues. Just this June, I was thrilled to learn that the Council of Independent Colleges ranked Wellesley number one for women STEM doctorate recipients and number two for women mathematics and statistics doctorate recipients. True cause for celebration.
Yet even at Wellesley, we are not immune to the impact of mainstream culture, to the limiting messages that come at young women from every side. For all the progress of recent decades, men remain vastly overrepresented in most STEM fields, with a hugely disproportionate share of leadership roles and accolades. Of the more than 600 Nobel Prizes given out in sciences, only 20 have gone to women.
There are many reasons for such gaps, with sexual harassment being one of the most disturbing. I took a deep dive into this issue two years ago, when I co-chaired a study that looked at the impacts of sexual harassment in academia on women in STEM fields. This was a joint effort of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
What we found was alarming. Academic workplaces are second only to the military in the rate of sexual harassment, with 58 percent of employees indicating they had experienced it. Addressing sexual harassment is critical to women’s wellness.
Wellesley is in the forefront of fighting this type injustice. We do this in many ways. Through the power of our extraordinary faculty, which is over 50 percent women and profoundly committed to equity and equal opportunity. We also promote equity through pedagogical innovation and career education. And, of course, through our building projects—most recently, on Science Hill.
After a recent tour, a member of my senior leadership team spontaneously exclaimed: “I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to study science here!” I loved hearing that. Because this is exactly what we’re after. With its expansive windows and flexible open spaces, the Science Center is designed to be a space where every Wellesley student will want to spend time.
By creating a lively, bright environment—one that encourages collaboration, cross-pollination, and teamwork—we break down some of the perceptions that can steer women away from STEM, too often seen as cold or rigid, detached from real-life concerns. This type of environment that encourages active engagement among students and faculty also helps to promote a healthy way of learning in community.
In so doing, we give yet another powerful nudge towards inclusivity. This is not only good for our students, it is also good for the world. When women are absent from the table, critical questions go unasked—and everyone pays the price.
For me, this is personal. As a physician and researcher, I’ve seen what happens when men take ownership over women’s health.
It wasn’t until 1993 that Congress passed a historic measure mandating the inclusion of women and minorities in phase 3 clinical trials conducted by the National Institutes of Health. Why did it take so long? Rep. Patricia Schroeder, one of the leaders in this effort, summed it up this way: “You fund what you fear. When you have a male-dominated group of researchers, they are more worried about prostate cancer than breast cancer.”
I was thinking about this the other day, while visiting our newly opened Global Flora Conservatory. I hope you will pay a visit, if you haven’t already. It’s a truly extraordinary display of plants from around the world. Each one is uniquely beautiful. And each can thrive only under a certain set conditions, or microclimates.
The is equally true of our students. Each one brings her unique gifts to the larger world. What fosters one will destroy another. They grow by their own rules.
This is why inclusive excellence is such a critical value—why it is so important that we provide the range of supports our diverse students need to flourish. If you planted a rose in the desert, would you blame it for failing thrive like its cactus neighbor? Of course not! You’d recognize that a rose has different needs.
I am so proud of all our faculty and staff are doing in this arena. I wish you could have seen their energy and enthusiasm at this summer’s Faculty-Staff Inclusive Excellence Retreat. I found it so inspiring.
* * *
So right about now, some of you may be thinking: That’s all very interesting. But what does it have to do with health and well-being? The answer is: a lot.
I recently spoke at a conference focused on higher education’s role in addressing student mental health and well-being, sparked by the soaring demand for student mental health services. “We are drinking from the fire house,” one of my fellow speakers observed. “Adding more and more counselors is an unsustainable solution.”
I’d go a step further. Not only is this unsustainable, it also misses the critical role of campus life writ large. Health and well-being are not standalone add-ons. Every experience a student has can enhance or hinder well-being. Health and well-being are bound up with everything we do.
Now, I don’t mean to downplay the crucial role of medical care and treatment—these are, of course, essential. When health issues arise, whether mental or physical, we need to ensure that students receive the appropriate services. In recent months, we’ve been making progress on this front through a new partnership with Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
And thanks to philanthropic support, we are also launching a pilot study on the prevention of depression in high-risk students. In true Wellesley fashion, our students are engaged in the design of this study, which is led by led by Dr. Tracy Gladstone of the Stone Center. This is an exciting step toward creation of evidence-based, high-impact prevention initiatives.
But there is also much to be done beyond the silos of medical and mental health care. More broadly, we need a culture of health throughout our campus. A culture fueled by the powers of human care and connection.
I talked about this at convocation, as well as in a Boston Globe op-ed. How all the world’s greatest challenges—from the environment to education, from poverty to pandemics to shoring up democratic institutions—will require us to come together as never before: across disciplines, across interests, across identities. How this requires skills and strategies that must be learned and practiced. That for this we need what I’ve come to call a Curriculum of Connection.
To be clear, this isn’t some new initiative. Rather, it’s a useful lens—one that foregrounds the essential work of building relationships. In a time of polarization, this is essential work. Yet it all too often fails to get the attention it deserves.
One great example is our Power4Women task force, established by the Board of Trustees to advance our sustainability objectives. This diverse group had a substantive task: to hammer out a set of recommendations. But beyond this explicit charge, they needed to talk through their differences and arrive at common ground. To grapple with hard choices and find ways to compromise. In so doing, they took a master course in the Curriculum of Connection—and as a task force member, I can tell you that everyone got an A!
Today, this work is carried forward by our E2040 working group, now hammering out a master plan to move Wellesley toward carbon neutrality.
Student life is another area where we are ever more intentional about fostering connection. This is one of the reasons the Lulu is so very important—like the Science Center, it’s a place for growth and transformation.
This is also true of student living spaces, the places they call home. Our newly redesigned residential curriculum aims to leverage the unique growth opportunities that come with living in community—truly an unparalleled context for learning how to forge healthy relationships with all sorts of people.
We have also dramatically increased our investment in upkeep and renovation of our residence halls, which play such a crucial role in students’ lives, fostering the growth of what will become lifelong relationships.
The importance of such bonds cannot be overstated. They are not only deeply meaningful and fun, but also good for us.
There is a huge amount of research on this, with more appearing each year. One of the extraordinary findings to emerge: Social isolation carries a mortality risk similar to that of smoking (source). Isolated people have been found to face a 50 percent greater risk of premature death than their socially connected peers.
Fortunately, this is a factor that we can easily shift.
For years, we’ve known that relationships tend to be integral to women’s way of being. I saw this firsthand as a cardiologist—that old-school rehab regimens that had patients working and exercising in isolation went against women patients’ natural inclinations, and only when the programs were changed to encourage community did women thrive.
Now, please don’t take this as an excuse to cut back on your own exercise. Exercise is a good thing! This is only one study! That said, it points toward an important truth: Nothing in life is more important than human relationships.
* * *
Your presence tonight testifies to the power of community. To the power of Wellesley bonds.
All of you so beautifully embody Wellesley’s motto: Non Ministrari sed Ministrare, not to be ministered unto, but to minister. You give so much in so many realms: family, community, work, and of course, Wellesley.
In closing, I want to leave you with a challenge: To care for yourselves with the same vigor that you care for others. This gift is not only to yourself but also to the world. Because if you don’t care for yourself, you’ll have little left to give.
We all know this, right? And yet it can be so hard to put into practice. Believe me, I know this well. And I also know the strength to be drawn from dear allies and friends.
During this precious time together, I hope you’ll talk about how to prioritize your own health and well-being—and how you might lovingly hold each other accountable.
Like the plants in Global Flora, each of us has unique needs, and different needs at different times. There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for self-care. Share ideas. Brainstorm. Come up with experiments.
And always—always—be Wellesley. Be well. We’re counting on you to be here for another 30 years and more.