President's Speech

2014 Convocation Address: Being a Women's College in the 21st Century

Wellesley President H. Kim Bottomly
Remarks as prepared for delivery, September 2, 2014

Good afternoon! It’s great to be back here in the Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall to celebrate Convocation and the start of this academic year. Welcome to Wellesley’s 140th year.

I see many members of our new purple class—the Class of 2018. Welcome to Wellesley! We are glad you have joined us.

This year, we also have four new Davis Scholars and 19 transfer students. It is great to have you here.

I would also like to say a special welcome to our eight new tenure-track faculty and our new staff. Welcome to Wellesley!

To the green Class of 2017: Congratulations! You are old hands now! Welcome back.

To the red Class of 2016: Welcome to the second half of your Wellesley experience! It’s wonderful to see you all again.

And a special shout out to the yellow Class of 2015: You are now officially the Senior Class of Wellesley College! The other classes look up to you, and they should. It is your turn to set the tone for our campus with your leadership. As a symbol of that leadership today, you have joined the faculty in wearing traditional academic robes. Enjoy your senior year!

Finally, let me welcome back our faculty and staff, many of whom were here working this summer. I hope you had an enjoyable summer, and, like me, you are looking forward to another memorable year at this remarkable place.

What is it that makes Wellesley so special? Is it our amazing faculty and dedicated staff? Yes. Is it you, our bright and capable students? Yes. Is it our beautiful campus? Our commitment to the liberal arts? Our inspiring alumnae? Yes, yes, and yes.

Today, I want to talk to you about another aspect of Wellesley that is critical to our identity and to our impact, and that is the importance of being a women’s college.

Let me begin with a statistic: Our surveys show that 14 percent—just 14 percent—of entering students choose Wellesley specifically because it is a women’s college. The surveys show that students choose it because of the great classrooms, the exceptional faculty, the amazing fellow students. They choose it because of the inspiring conversations they had with an alum. They choose it because of our generous financial aid policies and our commitment to ensuring that those who belong here can come here. They choose it for all these reasons, and not because it is a women’s college.   Mostly, they don’t mind that Wellesley is a women’s college, but that is not why they choose it. 

Yet, what is striking to me is that while only 14 percent of entering students indicate that they selected Wellesley because it is a women’s college, nearly all of the alums I meet tell me that being a women’s college explains the special power and lasting impact of Wellesley on their lives. Many of them also tell me they didn't realize that until after they graduated. Our senior survey shows that a majority of our students already feel this way by the time they graduate.

What happens at a women’s college, and specifically here at Wellesley to explain that enormous shift in thinking?   

Here is what we know.

Graduates of women’s colleges are almost twice as likely to complete a graduate degree compared to women who go to coed institutions.

Graduates of women’s colleges are 1.5 times more likely to major in math and/or the sciences. That is true of economics as well.

Surveys show that graduates of women’s colleges feel more prepared in their first job, compared to those at co-ed institutions.

Graduates of women’s colleges report more frequent interaction with their professors than those at co-ed institutions.

Graduates of women’s colleges have access to more leadership positions and training than those at co-ed schools.

Only 2 percent of women attend women’s colleges, yet graduates of women’s colleges represent more than 20 percent of women in Congress, and 33 percent of women on Fortune 1000 boards. 

Wellesley leads in these percentages. Let me tell you about a few Wellesley alums mentioned in the news just this past year: Joanne Berger-Sweeney ’79, selected the first African American and first women president of Trinity College; Victoria Budson, ’93 named one of CNN’s top 10 visionary women; Ioana Petrescu ’03, elected Romania’s first woman finance minister; Kate Leonard ’12, working on the script team for the Netflix series House of Cards. Diane Sawyer ’67 interviews Hillary Clinton ’69 about her presidential run; Julia Collins ’05 has the second best winning record and the best women’s record on Jeopardy; Jocelyn Benson ’99 was appointed Dean of Wayne State Law School; Sue Wagner ’82 appointed to the Apple Board of Directors; Persis Drell ’77 appointed the first woman Dean of Engineering at Stanford; Sandra Horbach ’82 appointed the first woman chair of the board for the Stanford Business School. And this was not an unusual year.

You have probably seen the photographs of many of our accomplished women on the walls of Alumnae Hall. They all attribute much of their success to their years at Wellesley. 

Is part of the explanation for the accomplishment of Wellesley alums that we only admit very smart women who have demonstrated great potential? Of course that is part of the explanation. But there are smart women with great potential at good coeducational schools. So what does account for our success?

Two things matter.

The first is the classroom experience.

We know what happens in the classroom here. The challenging and active Wellesley classroom experience makes it possible for each of you to be able to say to yourself with complete confidence: If I need to know that, I can learn that.

Recently, in an interview in Atlantic magazine, TJ Jarrett, Wellesley class of 1995, who is a poet and computer programmer, said, “The most important thing I learned at Wellesley was critical thinking, the ability to make pursuit of knowledge a lifetime goal rather than a means to get out of a class… I learned… all knowledge is fungible. You think you're taking a class in literary theory, but what you're really learning is to think deeply and systematically."  

TJ Jarrett has nailed it! 

The overarching purpose of liberal arts education is exactly that: imparting those broad skills that serve you so well in your career and your in life.

She implies that accumulating A’s is not the result that matters. Learning to think deeply, getting excited about ideas, becoming passionate about scholarship—those are the beneficial things. 

What TJ Jarrett cites as important might happen at any very good liberal arts college.  But we know it doesn’t happen to the same extent.

Being a women’s college matters.

Let me quote another Wellesley alum, Nan Keohane, class of 1961, who is not only a well-known scholar, but was also president of Wellesley College and then went on to become president of Duke University (in fact, she was the first woman to lead that college).

While president of Duke and talking about Duke, she said: “What would a truly coeducational institution look like? We call ourselves coeducational, but the experiences of men and women are not equal, and the differences too often translate into disadvantages for women.”

In other words, based on her directly relevant experience, being at a women’s college matters for women. Being at a women’s college is an advantage for students. 

And not because we cut our students any slack.

There is a stereotype expressed about the soft, non-rigorous classrooms of a women’s college—divorced from the real world so women can’t cope outside of them. You are probably as amused as I am whenever you hear that. Wellesley classrooms are welcoming, certainly, but they are rigorous, challenging intellectual incubators—hardly soft and cozy—and they make the “real world” seem easy by comparison.

Just recently, Anne Mostue ’03 tweeted this to me: “Every time someone says, ‘Lean in,’ I think—we learned that on day one at Wellesley.” 

Classrooms at Wellesley are of women and for women. They are also by women—more than 50 percent of our faculty members are women—important role models and mentors. Our classrooms are one of the many ways that Wellesley invests specifically in women.

But the classroom is only one part of our story. The second part is what I like to call the Wellesley ortgeist, the spirit and culture of the place.

It creates a strong sense of belonging, a feeling of genuine attachment to a unique place, and to the unique group that has emerged from that place over the years. 

The Wellesley ortgeist reflects our history, and is in large part a result of our history. Our founders, Henry and Pauline Durant, were clear in their belief in the importance of women’s education. In 1875, Henry Durant declared, “The higher education of women is one of the great world battle cries for freedom, for right against might.”  

That conviction—and certainly, the act of establishing a college for women equal to the education available only to men at that time—was a bold and radical notion in the 19th century. And it began the development of our group identity.

The Durants also emphasized merit over class, insisting that they wanted “as much calico as velvet” on campus.  

They also insisted on an education for women that was, in Henry Durant’s words, “as good as Harvard’s.”  (Now, of course, we know that it is better.)

Our revolutionary beginnings led to the development of traditions—traditions that still today foster strong bonds among our students and alums. Our revolutionary beginnings also led to our attracting uniquely dedicated and capable faculty throughout our history. The spirit of our founding lives on and strengthens our group identity.

This spirit of Wellesley is continually refreshed and reinforced by two things: our residential life, and our Wellesley network, which combine to produce a life-long feeling of belonging to a large and significant group.

Studies suggest that friendships developed at women’s colleges persist longer than others. Whatever the reason, this is certainly a Wellesley characteristic, as is very evident at reunion each year. 

As Beth Havens Choi, Class of 1958, notes, “Attending Wellesley insured that I would have, all through these many years, bright and intelligent people in my life. They were a constant. There was and is comfort to be had in having Wellesley thinkers and doers, as friends, acquaintances, and as instructors.”   

Here is another example: This summer, one of our alumnae, Connie Hungerford, Wellesley Class of 1970, was named interim president of Swarthmore College, where she was previously provost and a longtime professor of art history. Connie told me that upon her appointment, her Wellesley friends sent her a beautiful bouquet of flowers.

She was touched by this sentiment from her Wellesley friends, and she said she had to smile when she read the card, which included a misspelling, thanks to the florist. Connie’s flowers had been sent on behalf of her dear friends from “Power Court.”

Little did the florist know how apt that title is.

The Wellesley classroom experience and the Wellesley ortgeist combine to produce what many refer to as the Wellesley effect.

Sue Wagner ’82 said it best at Commencement this past May, when she said, “I came to believe that my wide-ranging interests, determination to tackle problems, and willingness to challenge myself and take risks were all underpinned by a sense of confidence gained right here (at Wellesley). It’s the Wellesley effect! You recognize it when you meet other alumnae, and others see it in us too.”

And in the words this summer of Wellesley Senior Ahilya Chawla, Wellesley is the “one experience that you cannot replicate anywhere else in the world.”

Being a women’s college explains why our alumnae consistently look back on their years here as the intellectual and spiritual crucible of their lives. Our bonds are stronger because we are a women’s college. That, combined with our academics, our faculty, our staff, our students, and the specific spirit of our campus, all contribute to help explain why our alumnae do well and also why they care so much about Wellesley.

Those elements are not the whole explanation, of course, but I think they are 90 percent of the explanation. What is the other 10 percent? I think it is magic. Wellesley magic.

This year, even in difficult times, pause occasionally and appreciate the Wellesley magic. Live the magic and embrace the Wellesley ortgeist. It is all around us.

I look forward to another magical year with all of you.