Convocation remarks by Provost Shennan
Good afternoon, everyone. I’m delighted to add my welcome, on behalf of the faculty, to our new green class of 2025. I’d like to welcome back to campus–for some of you, I realize, welcome for the first time—the members of the classes of 2024 and 2023. And hail to the purple class of 2022, many of you I see resplendent in the academic regalia that you will wear at your commencement next spring. Finally, greetings to my colleagues in the faculty and administration, companions in this strange odyssey of the last 18 months. Today the most banal greeting becomes the most meaningful—it is so good to see you!
Convocation marks the dawn of a new academic year. At last year’s virtual convocation, I said that the day didn’t feel like the start of something. It felt like the middle of something. We were in the middle of organizing ourselves to live out our educational mission in the midst of pandemic. Today, after a summer of false dawns, we are still, alas, somewhat unbelievably, in the middle of something. The challenges we face are different from those of last September, but, as we all know, we are still living with huge constraints and anxieties.
At least, though, and at long last, we are able to confront our challenges together—all of us back in this place, face to face. And, as it happens, we are reconvening here just as we approach the anniversary of another occasion on which a momentous shock disrupted our world. For a few minutes, I’d like to use that coincidence of timing to reflect on what it means, for a small community like ours, suddenly to be in the middle of something much larger than ourselves.
This Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Students and faculty were in their 8:30 classes when news of what had happened in New York filtered through. In Green Hall, we were holding a welcome-back reception for administrative staff. In my memory, the conversation just melted away almost midsentence. In those days, we couldn’t read, much less watch, the news on our cell phones, so people went in search of a television screen. I found one in the French department common room on the second floor of Green Hall. That’s where I watched the twin towers fall, sitting in stunned silence with a few colleagues and a half-dozen students who had come to meet their 9:50 French class and ended up witnessing one of the defining images of the 21st century. At 10:30, the College’s president—her name was Diana Chapman Walsh—posted on Official Announcements that classes were being cancelled for the rest of the day. President Walsh posted four times that day, urging us not to jump to hasty conclusions about what was happening and to focus on supporting one another. “There is much that is not within our power to influence or understand at this time of crisis, but we can focus our energies on maintaining our…community as best we can.” That evening, and again the next day, we held vigils on Severance Green, as the reality sank in and word spread that our own community (alums, students, and employees) had been touched directly by the loss of life.
Responding to this crisis called on all our resources of connection. On the Alumnae Association website, hundreds of alums began to post to classmates that they were safe—messages that were then relayed to friends, professors, and others on campus who knew them. The campus mobilized to contribute to blood drives and to the Red Cross. Student groups mobilized to show their support for Muslim students and staff on campus. The theme of Flower Sunday, held just a few days later, was the stages of grief. We put up whiteboards around campus so that community members could express their feelings about the tragedy.
At the same time, as an educational community, we felt compelled not just to grieve but to try to make sense of 9/11. In mounting an intellectual response, we benefited from efforts that the College had been making over the previous decade to globalize our community and curriculum. For several years before 2001, the College had embraced a responsibility to educate students with (to quote some words from the era) “the knowledge, the skills, the intellectual and emotional attitudes, and a quality of humanity necessary for a new global world.” What we called our “global education initiative” had increased the number of international students here, expanded opportunities for international study, and added new courses in Latin American studies, South Asian studies, East Asian studies—and Middle Eastern studies. After 9/11 there was a wave of soul-searching across American higher education about the parochialism of the nation’s programs, the fact, for example, that in the entire country only nine undergraduates received a degree in Arabic in 2000. In that context, Wellesley could take pride in the progress we had made to globalize our program, the fact (for example) that we had taught our first Arabic courses the week before 9/11.
I don’t want to idealize the cohesion or purposefulness of this community in that difficult moment. Our electronic conferences and those whiteboards across campus expressed the same political divisions that played out across the nation. I recall tensions about displaying American flags and bitter arguments about whether terrorism could ever be justified. And yet, for all that, it was a time of intense solidarity on campus and of intense engagement in the world beyond the campus.
9/11 didn’t set Wellesley on a new path. But it did encourage us to press forward on the path we were on. It strengthened the College’s commitment to extending the reach of our curriculum beyond Eurocentrism. It encouraged our interest in developing programs—like the one that eventually became the Albright Institute—that connected education in liberal arts disciplines with the experiential perspective of practitioners in the world. It also encouraged the College to be a more active advocate for women’s education worldwide. In 2002, 14 months after 9/11, we hosted an important planning meeting for a new liberal arts university that was about to be established in Bangladesh, the Asian University for Women. That’s the same university whose Afghan alums and students, as you just heard from President Johnson, were evacuated from Kabul Airport a few days ago.
That arc of history from the twin towers to Kabul airport reminds us that the events of 9/11 led to two decades of war and upheaval that continue to this day. Eighteen months into the COVID crisis, I think it is too soon to know whether the events we are living through now will have a similarly long-lasting impact. But over this past year, as we have felt the succession of aftershocks—in our society, in the world, in the environment—it has seemed increasingly likely that we are still living through a fundamental transition.
With COVID, of course, there was no single day that started everything. For us the closest analog to 9/11 is 3/12. Just before midday on March 12, 2020, President Johnson announced that we were moving to remote instruction for the remainder of the spring semester. The news didn’t exactly come out of the blue, in the same way as the attacks on the World Trade Center had. But there was the same surreal feeling on campus, the same surge of dismay and grief. I experienced it in a meeting that afternoon with all the chairs of the academic departments and programs. The faculty had a thousand questions (most of which my colleagues and I couldn’t answer). There were tears in the room, as I know there were tears in classrooms when students read the president’s message on their phones. But there was a feeling of solidarity that still gives me goosebumps to recall, and a spontaneous determination to do whatever we needed to do for our students.
The College’s response over the past 18 months has echoed our response to 9/11. We have rallied to keep one another safe. We have focused our educational, material and emotional resources on supporting our students. At the same time, we have engaged intellectually with the burning questions that the pandemic crisis has highlighted—questions not just about public health, but about racial justice, about climate change, about threats to our democracy. In 2020 and 2021, as in 2001, we have relied on the progress we had already made before the crisis arrived. Our initiatives in anti-racism, for example, have built on the efforts of the previous five years to introduce more inclusive pedagogies, the change agent training pioneered by our science faculty, the pioneering work of our Learning and Teaching Center and of the Office of Intercultural Education.
Again, there’s no need to idealize ourselves. Over the past 18 months, we’ve had plenty of differences of opinion about the right steps to take, plenty of petitions, plenty of pandemic-related setbacks along the way. And yet, scattered across the world, we have maintained a sense of shared purpose, and fulfilled President Johnson’s prediction on March 12 that we would all experience a lifelong lesson in resilience and in building community. Our faculty and staff have innovated and improvised like never before. And Wellesley students have been undaunted in your engagement not just with your education but with the world—studying abroad when virtually no other college students were doing it, taking on remote internships when in-person wasn’t possible, doing your part to address issues of inequality that cannot be deferred until the pandemic is over, in part because the pandemic is exacerbating them.
And now we are all back together. On the evening of 9/11, we urged those at the vigil to “feel the beauty and peace of this place.” Today, as we gather—not without apprehension, but eager for the solace of connection after so many months of isolation—I hope we can feel again the beauty and peace of this place, which belongs to all of us and which will surely help keep us together as we confront the inevitable uncertainties and frustrations that still lie ahead.
At the same time, let’s also feel the promise of this place. Yes, we are in the middle of a vast public health crisis. But we are also in the middle of something in a different, more optimistic sense. We are on a path. We are on a path to influencing the world unapologetically in the direction of our values, we are on a path to becoming an institution that defines what an inclusive, globally engaged liberal arts college can look like in the 21st century. We are on a path, in the words of our new strategic plan, to amplifying Wellesley’s mission for a changing world. COVID is going to complicate our progress in the months ahead, but we were on this path before COVID, and we will continue on it after COVID.
Thank you all, welcome back, and I look forward to a year of being boldly and productively in the middle of something!