President's Remarks

Remarks by President Johnson

Remarks by President Johnson

Good afternoon!

Faculty, students, and staff: It is my great pleasure to welcome you to campus at the start of Wellesley’s 145th year.

A special welcome to the incoming yellow class of 2023, to our seven new Davis Scholars, and to our nine transfer students. What a journey you are beginning! I am so excited for you.

Welcome, too, to our new faculty, and to our new administrative and union members—and a heartfelt welcome back to all our returning students:

To the powerful purple class of 2022!

To the great green class of 2021!

And last—but far from least—the remarkable red class of 2020!

Amazing. Three years ago, we began our Wellesley journey together. What a road you have traveled since. I am so proud of who you have become—and who you are becoming. May this final Wellesley year be your best yet.

* * *

With the start of this new academic year, we all share the excitement that comes with new beginnings.

At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore some of the darkness that surrounds us. Never in my lifetime have I felt that democracy was more at risk.

Injustice is nothing new to the United States—indeed, it was present at the nation’s establishment, written into our most cherished founding documents. Still, for most of my life I have been confident that we were headed in the right direction—that, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the long arc of the moral universe was bending towards justice.

Recently, however, that conviction has begun to waver. Just this summer we have witnessed:

  • White supremacy on the rise and efforts to shut down the U.S. border.
  • A gun violence epidemic.
  • Curtailment of women’s rights to reproductive health care.
  • Attacks on science and scientific research, including efforts to address climate change.
  • An ongoing assault on the free press.

And, sadly, so much more.

Now, convocation is a time of celebration and optimism—and I sense this spirit, too. Yet, as I sat down to prepare these remarks, I felt the need to acknowledge the gathering storm clouds.  To reconcile what we do on campus with what goes on outside it. To ask how our work at Wellesley College advances larger commitments.

I’ve been thinking about these issues for some time now. Last spring, I was invited to speak at a summit on how higher education serves the public good. The allotted time? No more than 15 minutes.

My first reaction: Are you kidding me? I could talk about this for hours and still not cover the essentials. Higher education serves such a vast array of public goods: Preparing students to make a living and be of service in the world. Advancing the frontiers of knowledge. Cultivating an appreciation for universal truths and beauty. The list goes on.

Clearly, I would need to focus. Of the vast array of goods that I might talk about, which should I choose?

I thought about the mission of Wellesley College—to provide an excellent liberal arts education to women who will make a difference in the world. I thought about the state of this world, with its conflicts and divisions. And I thought about the brilliance gathered here, your great minds and your great hearts, the vast potential in each of you, just waiting to be unlocked.

In these unfolding thoughts, I finally found my answer: Of all the goods that we serve, none is more important than fostering the capacity to bridge divides—of politics, race, gender, economic class, immigration status, and all the other fault lines of 21st-century life.

This is an essential tool of leadership—and the foundation of democracy. It will go far to determine what the future looks like.

And it is here that I found more hope. For all the injustices of today, we are not without power—quite to the contrary.

In 1932, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase “laboratories of democracy.” It refers to a system where states conduct experiments as test grounds for the nation at large. Today, I believe that communities like ours have a similar role to play.

As a residential liberal arts college, we are uniquely positioned to explore how to bridge human differences. To answer this momentous question, posed by writer Claudia Rankine: “How can I say this so we can stay in this car together?”

Just look around you: Our community is wonderfully diverse in so, so many ways. Yet, day after day, we come together on this beautiful campus, united in our commitment to Wellesley’s mission.

For students, this experience is especially rich. You don’t just see each other in class, then go your separate ways. For four years, you will live together and eat together, study and work together.                         

This is an enormous opportunity! We can seek not to mirror the world but to be a beacon for it.

In a prescient essay, Wellesley’s second president, the remarkable Alice Freeman Palmer, spoke of the power of friendship with people very different from ourselves—of “the wealth that lies in differences.”

More than 100 years later, this vision is still with us. Yet it is so easy to squander this wealth rather than mine its riches. How can we more fully access the gifts of our differences? How can we bridge divides, not tumble into them?

This is an urgent question. All of 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.

Yet this won’t happen automatically. It requires skills and strategies that must be learned and practiced. It is not something you can or should be expected to accomplish alone. It requires what we might call a Curriculum of Connection.

Now this phrase may be new, but the idea is not. Indeed, it’s evolving across campus, thanks to the vision and work of so many of you. To cite just a few examples:

At the institutional level, it’s been advanced by our Task Force on Speech and Inclusion, which submitted its recommendations to me last spring. The need to build trust and connection across difference, both large and small, was at the core of its proposals. I hope you will take some time to consider them, if you haven’t already—I first shared them with the Wellesley community in May. I also linked to them in my welcome back letter of last week and will send them out again shortly.

On the academic front, faculty are seeking—and finding—powerful, innovative strategies to get more students talking and working together.

A $1 million Inclusive Excellence grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has funded development of inclusive science pedagogy and advising, while the Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing help students translate their academic expertise into far more accessible language.

Beyond the classroom our newly redesigned residential curriculum leverages the unique growth opportunities that come with living in community—truly an unparalleled context for exploring how to align one’s life with big abstract values such as social justice, compassion, and inclusion.

Finally, forging productive connections will also be central to the development of our Strategic Plan, a process that is just getting under way and about which you will hear much more.

* * *

To be clear, the Curriculum of Connection does not seek to erase conflict—nothing of the sort. Indeed, conflict is its subject—the locus of learning. In the eloquent words of former Wellesley President Diana Chapman Walsh ’66, it takes up conflicts in ways that “turn them into crucibles for learning.”

That said, we must stay ever-mindful of the bigger picture. In the heat of conflict, we must not lose sight of all that unites us, first and foremost our shared values:

As a community, we are committed to the search for truth through evidence-based research, and we embrace the principle of freedom in scholarly inquiry.

As a community, we aspire to build a world where every person is valued and heard and everyone can contribute—where everyone has the chance to thrive and to reach their full potential.

And as a community, we believe that each one of us is called to make a difference in the world—both on the Wellesley campus and far beyond it.

Such principles must remain ever in the foreground. Even as we seek to make Wellesley better, we must also meet our responsibilities to the larger world.

* * *

Shortly after her 2018 election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, someone asked community activist Liz Miranda—class of 2002—what advice she’d give her Wellesley student self. Miranda responded:

“I would tell her to be more of a bridge.…[I]f I had learned to be a better bridge, I would have impacted so many more people who came from varying viewpoints and lifestyles.”

I would tell her to be more of a bridge.

These words have stayed with me. Today, I challenge each one of you—each one of us—to commit to this endeavor. To be that bridge. To both study and teach the Curriculum of Connection.

This is not the work of a day, or the work of a year. It is a project that runs throughout Wellesley’s history.

In every conflict, every dispute lies an opportunity. Differences can tear us apart or they can make us stronger—but only if we learn to use them wisely.

To listen to each other. To assume the best. To seek out common ground.

To be that bridge.

This is a personal triumph and a fundamental public good. It is the greatest gift we can give each other—and the greatest gift we can give the world.

Thank you.