Provost's Remarks

Provost Shennan speaks during virtual convocation

Convocation remarks by Provost Shennan

Good afternoon, everyone! My name is Andy Shennan—I hope you can hear me through this mask! And I hope my glasses don’t fog up! This is the 18th convocation that I have participated in as dean or as provost. Today’s ceremony is, in so many ways, like no other.

Convocation is literally the calling together of our community. But today, sadly, we are not able to gather face to face. I wish I could greet my colleagues in person. I wish I could welcome in person the entering red class of 2024 and welcome back the classes of 2022 and 2023. Above all, how I wish I could look out on the extraordinary green class of 2021, resplendent in the gowns that you will wear at commencement next spring! 

Convocation marks the dawn of a new academic year. Today doesn’t feel like the start of something, though. It feels like the middle of something—the middle of a momentous effort by our entire community to live out our educational mission in the midst of pandemic. Just to be here, we have already had to overcome so many challenges, we have already had to plan and prepare like never before. We have already, each of us, had to do so much thinking and soul-searching—on Zoom calls, around kitchen tables, with our colleagues, with our families and friends, in the quiet of our own thoughts. The faculty has had to reimagine and reorganize our curriculum. The administration has had to reconfigure our campus spaces, rethink the routines and practices of our residential life, and support students and faculty all around the world. Wellesley students, whether you are studying remotely or on campus, have had to adapt to change in every aspect of your college experience. We wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t already persevered, if we hadn’t already—collectively—shown our commitment to the work of discovery and empowerment we do together.

Convocation has often been a moment to look to the history of our College for inspiration in meeting the challenges of the present. But in our history there is no analog to the challenges that we face now. We experienced a different pandemic a century ago, but we have never experienced a year in which half the College is here and half is with us remotely. At this convocation, then, I draw more inspiration from the present than from the past.

I draw inspiration from the sense of community that we have witnessed among faculty and staff over these past six months. When we have met in meetings or in webinars this spring and summer, we have gathered virtually in far larger numbers than we’ve ever gathered in person. Like any group of dedicated colleagues, we critique one another and sometimes frustrate and disappoint one another. But we have expressed appreciation and solidarity more wholeheartedly than ever before. We have shared sacrifices. And in responding to this emergency, we have worked collaboratively in a way that I, at least, had never experienced. In the process, we have discovered a deeper sense of our interdependence, and we will not be able to unlearn it.

I draw inspiration from the intensity with which, in this summer of national reckoning, students have raised again the College’s responsibility to advance the goals of racial justice, equity, and inclusion. I draw inspiration from the urgency with which our faculty and staff have responded. In conversations sponsored by Dean Núñez and Dean Jeffries, dozens and dozens of colleagues from across the College have expressed new determination to bring structural change to our teaching and to our curriculum and campus culture.

I draw inspiration from the resourcefulness with which we have changed the way we work, the way we teach, and the way we learn. The switch to remote instruction has necessitated experimentation on a scale and at a pace that we have never witnessed. Our faculty have been superbly supported in that effort by Library and Technology Services and by the leadership of the PLTC, and have spent the past months sharing and refining their ideas about teaching in this new mode. We have dissolved the boundaries between campus and world, and our academic program will be permanently transformed for the better.

And I draw inspiration from the other kind of teaching and learning—the kind that began here on campus this week. Why are more than one hundred Wellesley faculty learning to lecture through masks, adapting to all kinds of inconveniences in their classrooms? Why are more than a thousand students here on campus, studying with those faculty, dealing with those same discomforts? Because that is the education that Wellesley has practiced for almost 150 years, and that is the education we believe in—face-to-face, personalized, residential, attentive to each individual’s interests and voices.

My message at the start of this year is simple. We know how to do this. We know how to do this by collaborating and by counteracting the isolation that pandemic causes. By seizing the opportunity that this moment affords to make progress toward our profoundest goals. By being unafraid of innovation. By standing up for the educational model that is currently challenged by COVID-19, but to which we remain committed for the long haul.  

Yes, we are in uncharted territory. But let’s not be daunted by that. The Wellesley classes that are here now have an opportunity to set an example for all the classes that come after you. We, the faculty and the staff, have that same opportunity. Uncertainty is the essence of living through a pandemic; none of us can predict the course of the year ahead. But if we continue to navigate that uncertain course as we have been doing, then we can be certain that this academic year will be an inspiration to those who come after us. Thank you.