Convocation 2011

Provost and Dean of the College Andy Shennan's Convocation Remarks

Wellesley College Convocation August 30, 2011, Hay Amphitheater

This ceremony is intended to be a celebration, welcoming us all back to the joys and rigors of our academic life together and reconnecting us as a community. The subject of my remarks today may seem out of place in such a celebration, but, if you will bear with me, I hope I can persuade you that it is, in fact, a most fitting subject for this occasion.

Next week, we’ll mark the tenth anniversary of one of the most tragic and traumatic days in this nation’s history. I dare say that, for all of us, that September day in 2001 summons up some kind of strong memory and strong emotion; for some, the most painful memories imaginable. Since I was working and living here at Wellesley at the time, my memory of 9/11 is bound up with this place. I’d like to reflect briefly on that memory and on how 9/11 affected the college. As we look at where we are now and think back to 2001, I believe we, as a college, can draw inspiration from the arc of our history over this past decade.

The attacks came quite literally out of the blue, one of the bluest skies I can ever remember. In the Wellesley News edition rushed into print the next day, a student editor began her column by reflecting, as many did, on the too-beautiful days that had come before. “For almost two weeks now,” she wrote, “I’ve been wrapped up in the weather. The azure sky, newly manicured Severance Green and fresh gusts of crisp, autumnal air from Lake Waban have been stunning.”

Many students and faculty were in their 8:30 classes when the first news of what had happened in New York filtered through. In Green Hall, we were welcoming back administrative colleagues at a breakfast reception in the dean’s office. In my recollection, the conversations stopped in mid-sentence. Across campus, faculty, students, and staff rushed to find television screens to see for themselves what had happened but then also to watch an unfolding horror.

At 10:30 am, the college president, Diana Walsh, posted on Official Announcements that classes were being cancelled for the rest of the day. She urged students not to leave campus and encouraged them to return to their residence halls; faculty and staff were asked to join them there. In those days, students still had landlines in their rooms, and, with cell service failing in many locations, the college announced that long-distance calls would be free of charge, so that students could try to make contact with family members and friends.

The fear and disorientation were palpable, and in a series of postings (four on that first day) President Walsh urged the community not to jump to hasty conclusions and to focus on supporting one another. Her message was summed up in these words posted in the early afternoon: “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 small community as best we can.” That evening and again the next day, there were vigils on Severance Green, as the reality sank in and word spread that our own community had been touched directly by the loss of life.

Responding to this crisis, it quickly became apparent, would require all of our resources. First and foremost, it called on the resources of solidarity and sisterhood. On the Alumnae Association website, for example, 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, and student groups wrote thank-you letters to firefighters and rescue workers in New York and Washington, and participated in a Scarves for Solidarity Day, wearing head scarves to show their support for Muslim women on campus.

In addition, the crisis called on our religious and spiritual resources to console those who were grieving; stages of grief became the theme of Flower Sunday, held a few days after the attacks. And at the same time, and to a degree that doesn’t always occur in national crises, there was a compelling need for an intellectual response. The campus, and the nation, needed to understand the motives and worldviews of those who had attacked and the potential impact of their attacks. The urgency of the "why?" question—as it was often phrased in those days, why do they hate us?—can hardly be overstated, and there was a realization that properly framing and answering such questions required academic expertise. Our faculty provided that expertise in a series of panel discussions, lectures, and gatherings.

It was important and noteworthy that we had the academic resources here on our own campus to tackle these questions. On a national level, 9/11 provoked a wave of soul-searching about the failure of the U.S. educational system to educate adequately about other cultures. For example, one of the most oft-cited statistics in the attacks’ aftermath was that in the preceding year all U.S. colleges and universities combined had graduated a total of nine Arabic majors. At Wellesley, we could at least say that we had begun to offer introductory and intermediate Arabic courses the week before 9/11. This introduction of Arabic into our curriculum was only one part of an ambitious global education initiative that Wellesley College had begun to implement in the preceding five years. Announcing in 1998 that the college had an obligation “to educate new generations of students who will have the knowledge, the skills, the intellectual and emotional attitudes, and a quality of humanity [necessary for] a new global world,” we had increased the number of international students admitted to the college and the number of students studying abroad; we had begun to support dozens of new international internships; and we had added new faculty members in Latin American studies, South Asian studies, East Asian studies, and Middle Eastern studies. This global education initiative undoubtedly helped to provide the intellectual resources we needed to make sense of what had happened on 9/11.

In retrospect, the crisis seemed to highlight and perhaps even accentuate two of Wellesley College’s essential strengths: the closeness of our community and the cosmopolitanism of our aspirations. Certainly, it is possible to exaggerate the cohesion or purposefulness of the campus in those very challenging days. I didn’t archive the postings on the Faculty-Staff and Community conferences, but my recollection is that people expressed there, sometimes in raw language, the same political divisions that were manifested across the country. I recall tensions about the displaying of American flags on campus and about the scheduling of events on religious holy days, and bitter arguments about whether terrorism could ever be justified. Many faculty (and I include myself in their number) didn’t entirely know how to discuss these events in class. On the day after, some delivered prepared remarks to their students. Others preferred to stick with what they knew—their course material—and avoid commentary altogether.

Clearly, there was no right or wrong approach: In the dean’s office, we heard from some students who positively wanted faculty to discuss the attacks in class and from others who wanted the classroom to be a refuge from events that were being so incessantly relived and analyzed. All that said, and recognizing one’s tendency to idealize, I still find that my own strongest memories are of genuine solidarity—a somber gathering of dozens of faculty in the president’s living room, the white boards dotted around campus on which students were invited to express their responses to the tragedy, the occasions on which we all came together (to quote President Walsh’s remarks on the evening of 9/11) “to feel the beauty and peace of this place.”

And, at the same time, juxtaposed with the serenity of our campus and the supportiveness of our community, I have never felt so strongly as in 2001 what I would term our cosmopolitanism—our aspiration as an intellectual community to engage in the world.

Where did—and does—this cosmopolitanism come from? I can think of at least five sources. One is our deeply held sense of mission: to educate women to make a difference in the world. Another is the great diversity of background and perspective that we individually—students, faculty, staff—bring to this educational mission. A third is the participation of our faculty in their various scholarly and creative networks—intellectual worlds in their own right to which we all gain access through their expertise. A fourth is our geographic location in the Boston area; proximity to a great intellectual center gives us opportunities both to participate in larger conversations and to increase the audience for our own endeavors. And a fifth source of cosmopolitanism, especially in recent years, has been our sustained effort, since at least the mid-1990s, to globalize ourselves and our educational programs.

Ten years later, I still believe that the promise of Wellesley is to combine a certain kind of intense community here on this serene campus with urgent and multi-faceted engagement in the world. If anything, with all the attention that we have devoted to our landscape over the past decade, the campus is even more jewel-like today than a decade ago. (Students, you’ll just have to take my word for it that there was a time not so long ago when the verdant valley behind me—in front of you—was an ugly parking lot.)

But are we also more cosmopolitan? I would argue so. As we open this new year, we can note with pride that there are more international students at Wellesley today, coming from more countries, than ever before in our history. And we can note that, after introducing Arabic into our curriculum in 2001, we have gone on to introduce Korean, Hindi-Urdu, and Swahili and now offer instruction in 14 languages—more than virtually any other college in this country. We can only do this because Wellesley students are singularly committed to language study and to deep learning about other cultures.

Our collective engagement in the world is a two-way street—taking our research and ideas out into the world and bringing the world to Wellesley. The traffic is heavy in both directions. Let me just cite a few current examples by way of illustration.

In the one direction, I might cite the national and international impact, reaching the White House and beyond, of Professor Susan Reverby’s recent revelations about a U.S. government medical research study in Guatemala; or the important and timely conference that the Wellesley Centers for Women organized this spring in Rabat, Morocco, on the subject of Women Leading Change in the Arab and Muslim World; or the symposium that our Albright Institute will hold this December in London on the theme of Women’s Leadership, in partnership with the London School of Economics. In the other direction, I think of last spring’s stunning retrospective of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, which not only brought so much attention and so many visitors to the Davis Museum, but in its substance provided, for all of us who saw it, moving and thought-provoking commentary on the phenomenon of globalization itself. Our cultural life has also been enriched in recent years by a Distinguished Writers Series, organized by the Newhouse Center for the Humanities, which has brought a string of high-profile authors to give public readings on our campus. The very purpose of the Newhouse Center (an institution that was only dreamed of in 2001) echoes the theme of my remarks: It was founded to “create a dynamic and cosmopolitan intellectual community that extends from Wellesley College to the wider Boston-area community and beyond.”

These and other examples give me the conviction that the college has made great strides since that terrible day in 2001—strides not in a new direction, but taking us further in the direction that we had always intended to head. That’s the message that I’d like to leave you with today, as we welcome the new Class of 2015, as we welcome back the Classes of 2013 and 2014, and as we salute the senior Class of 2012, resplendent in the graduation gowns you will wear at Commencement.

Here we are again on another beautiful late summer day, under another impossibly blue sky. As we begin this, our 137th academic year, let’s redouble our efforts to ensure that the serenity of our surroundings is matched by the animation of our intellectual life, and the closeness of our community by our engagement in the world.