Convocation remarks by Provost Shennan
Hello everyone. My name is Andy Shennan, and I’m the provost. It’s a privilege to greet my colleagues in the faculty and administration at the beginning of this new academic year. It’s a pleasure to welcome our first-year students in the class of 2023 and to welcome back the classes of 2021 and 2022. And, above all, hail to the red class of 2020, resplendent in the academic gowns that you will wear at commencement next spring.
Although convocation marks the beginning of a new academic year, it is also an occasion to consider the ways that the past has shaped our College, and to reflect on what brings us here, together, on this beautiful afternoon. So, in that spirit, I have been reflecting on last May’s commencement, which I know some of you attended and others, I hope, were able to watch. We heard wonderful and inspirational speeches by our president and our commencement speaker, Anita Hill. But I’m sure President Johnson and Professor Hill won’t mind my saying that a particular highlight of the 2019 commencement was a truly memorable student speech, delivered by senior Kavindya Thennakoon. Kavi’s speech was so powerful and impassioned that it immediately brought to mind the very first student speech at a Wellesley commencement—the famous one that Hillary Rodham delivered in 1969. And that comparison, in turn, got me thinking about these two moments in history, two moments 50 years apart, two moments of turmoil and transition happening in the world beyond Wellesley, but also playing out on our campus.
Fifty years ago, Hillary spoke immediately after, and (in her words) in reaction to, a commencement address delivered by a sitting U.S. senator. She cast herself as the spokesperson not just of her Wellesley Class but of her generation: “We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power,” she said “but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest.” Hillary reflected on the efforts that she and her classmates had made to reform Wellesley. She reminisced about the expectations that her class had had when they arrived here and the organizing and protest that had been needed to bring reality into closer alignment with those expectations. Their questioning had been directed first at their Wellesley education (including—yes!—the Wellesley grading system). But it also had a broader focus. They were criticizing—Hillary was criticizing—the values of the society beyond campus, the “prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life” of America on the cusp of the 1970s.
The tone of Hillary’s speech was more overtly political and less personal than Kavi’s. Hillary said relatively little about herself or her friends. Kavi told us about her family, about how she came to make the 8,578-mile trip to Wellesley, about the daily experiences of her classmates, their emotional lives as well as their academic experience.
But I don’t want to make too much of the contrast in tone. To some extent, it may just reflect an evolution in our culture: I think we’re more comfortable sharing, or listening to, personal experiences in public settings than people were 50 years ago. If Hillary were to deliver her speech now, perhaps she would give it a more personal tone (as she did in 2017, when she returned to give the commencement address). More importantly, differences in tone obscure an underlying similarity in the message. Kavi’s speech may not have laid out a generational agenda in quite the same way that Hillary’s did. But it was a political speech. In almost her first words, she told us about her mother in Sri Lanka, who was unable to come to campus last May because she had been denied a visa by the U.S. government. She went on to highlight some of the issues of equity and inclusion that shaped her classmates’ efforts to reform Wellesley and bring their expectations into alignment with reality. For example, she spoke about her first-generation siblings, who “played on an uneven playing field,” who “listened to our peers discuss citation styles with their parents while we were too busy discussing the best way to send money home so that our parents could pay their rent.” She urged her class to transform the communities that they came from and to mobilize “for the rights of our trans siblings across the world.”
I think these two speeches perhaps get to the heart of Wellesley. We are deeply rooted in our sense of purpose. We are deeply rooted in this place. We are deeply rooted in our past and in our values. We are rooted, but we are restless. Our mission is fundamentally about liberation: Our founder called higher education for women “one of the great world battle cries for freedom.” So how can we ever be merely satisfied? There is always more to do. There is always a gap between our aspiration and our reality, and that gap is what drives us forward as an institution.
And as an institution, we face changes and challenges today that rival those of 50 years ago. Perceptions of liberal arts education and the expectations that students, parents, and the public have of a residential liberal arts college have shifted over time. The world of work that our graduates will enter after College has changed. So many aspects of our culture—for example, the role that technology plays in our lives or our understandings of gender—have been transformed. With so much shifting in the external environment, this is the right moment to look at ourselves, to envision our future, and to develop a plan to help us get there.
As you’ve heard, that’s precisely what the president is charging us to do, through a year-long process of strategic planning. She has urged us to identify the strategies that “preserve the best of Wellesley and also prepare us to move boldly into the future.”
How do we thread that needle? We need to ask the real questions, and we need to acknowledge that we will not all have the same answers to them. If we truly push ourselves to think differently about Wellesley, about liberal arts education, about the world that we are educating students for, we are bound to contemplate changes that, for some, will cross a line. A field of study or a program or a policy that some among us will view as outdated or dispensable will seem to others “the best of Wellesley,” to be preserved at all costs. When should we double down on what we have done in the past, and when should we evolve in a new direction? This is, to me, the critical question. There is always a creative tension embedded in our effort to plan the future—a tension between the imperative to reimagine the College and the freedom to dissent from those reimaginings. Again, we are rooted and we are restless.
As we embark on a year of planning, I can’t think of better advice than Kavi’s to the class of 2019: “Always ask the uncomfortable questions and not only speak loudly, but […] listen boldly.” Whether you’re in your first year at Wellesley, your second, third, fourth (or, like me, in your 32nd), let’s make it a year in which we ask the uncomfortable questions and listen boldly. Let’s listen boldly to one another; let’s listen boldly to the promptings of our past and to our still unfilled aspirations for the future.