Charge to the
123rd Commencement Exercises
June 1, 2001
Diana Chapman Walsh
Now we come to
the traditional moment in our Commencement program when the president
issues her "charge" to the graduating class. No, it's not about bills
you still have to pay, or battlefields I want you to storm. Nor is it
a commentary on whether you seem excited enough. You do. Definitely.
It's about the
most basic meaning of the verb to charge, the one that's listed first
(in my dictionary, anyway): "to impose a duty, a responsibility, or
an obligation upon." This is my last official chance to impose anything
on you -- a reality that I suspect has not escaped your notice.
In just a few minutes
(if you can contain your excitement) Dean Cuba and I will enact a little
ritual that transpires up here every year. Then I'm going to confer
upon you the Degree of Bachelor of Arts and "admit you to all the rights,
dignities, and responsibilities of that degree." And finally I'm going
to hand each of you that small--and oh-so-expensive--piece of parchment
for which you've worked so diligently these past four full and challenging
So you've earned
it, right? We all know you've sacrificed enough--sleep, social life,
luxuries--essentials too. You've jumped through all the hoops. You even
rolled one down Tupelo Lane. (Well, some of you did. Some taped hoops
together in an alarming Rube Goldberg machine and rolled it as a group,
ostensibly in the name of teamwork, but I did wonder about the beer.)
No matter. You
are worthy of this exalted new status I'm about to confer on you. You've
done everything we've asked, and more. So what is this talk of responsibilities,
obligations, duties you still owe? Did we forget to tell you the diploma
comes with strings attached? Well, yes it does, and, of course, this
is no surprise. Non ministrari sed ministrarae; there's no escaping
All this year,
as we've celebrated the College's 125th anniversary, you've been surrounded
by colorful banners reminding you that we expect you'll make a difference
in the world. You've spent the year in the company (symbolic and embodied)
of dozens of impressive alumnae who've challenged all sorts of assumptions
about the impact women can have in every sphere of endeavor.
And now it's your
turn to work out what impact you will have, and where, and how it will
matter. When you return for your 25th reunion --and I hope you'll be
back before then-- but at your 25th, Wellesley's 150th anniversary year
will be winding down, and you will be the ones whose stories are being
told, the women who have taken on the establishment in bold and exciting
ways. I know you've been wondering, off and on all year, exactly who
you will be then. I know you have big ambitions; you've spoken to me
So you are leaving
this place with all sorts of hopes and expectations-yours, ours, and
those of the many others who care most about you--the friends for life
that you've made here and the family and friends who've come to celebrate
with you today. As you leave, you will carry with you the pride of this
College and of the generations who have preceded you here. And you are
leaving to open new possibilities for those who will follow behind.
For each of you
this day is both the end of a period of transformational growth and
the beginning of another new life: Incipit Vita Nova all over again.
For me, it marks the end of eight years in the presidency. That's two
full cohorts of bright and engaged Wellesley students eager to make
this College reflect their passion for what is right and true and good.
So I feel a special kinship with you, the class of 2001. We've been
through a lot together--a complex cycle of turmoil and change.
Do you remember
your first opening convocation on September 4, 1997, the day we welcomed
you to Wellesley--a new class for a new millennium? That seems a very
long time ago, and yet only yesterday. It's hard to believe it's time
for you to go. We'll miss you.
Thursday four autumns ago was a beautiful day in the Hay Amphitheatre
and you were out in full force and full voice, as you have been ever
since. We saw then that you were going to be a powerful influence on
this campus. And you have been.
You've begun here
some of the urgent work our society will need you to advance if we are
going to make headway against the military, economic, and ecological
threats that hang over all our heads.
Robert Bellah and
his colleagues, in their book The Good Society, document failures of
the institutions on which our common life depends, institutional flaws
(such as those producing poverty and homelessness) that make it difficult
to be "a good person in the absence of a good society." A good society
depends fundamentally on its institutions. They shape the way we organize
and experience all public life.
Americans tend to think of our institutions (the economy and the government,
education, and health care, corporations and the media) as beyond our
comprehension and control. The latest presidential election was a chilling
case in point. We leave the tyrannies and irrationalities of these institutions
to the technical experts; we sit on the sidelines as detached, ironic
or disgusted observers; and we conserve our energies to carve out for
ourselves and those we love a safe personal sphere.
But we won't make
a safer world until we can make more responsive institutions. Our democracy
is seriously imperiled by our inattention to the social arrangements
that enact our public philosophy, bear our collective memories and cultural
traditions, and shape our patterns of meaning and self-understanding.
And this is where
you come in. For you were not content, while you were here at Wellesley,
to retreat to the personal sphere. As absorbing as your academic lives
here were, as fulfilling as your friendships were, you took time to
apply what you were learning in your classes to make sense of our common
purposes as a college community.
You insisted that
we imagine together how we might become more inclusive and more fair.
You worked hard to engage your own differences, to learn -- and to teach
-- from them. You developed a capacity for thoughtful public discussion
and creative invention of new ways of conceiving and advancing the common
ceremonies all over the country now, groups of graduating seniors are
being called to a life of service with soaring rhetoric and sobering
inventories of the world's ills and urgent needs. You've already demonstrated
that you mean to assume your public duties with intelligence and compassion.
It won't be easy. But you're ready.
So - as you take
your leave now from this place that has nourished you, it's time for
me to say good bye and to give you that piece of parchment. And I want
also to give you another keepsake I hope you will value and save, a
copy of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
Its adoption, in
December 1948, was among the first major accomplishments of the United
Nations. It was crafted by the first UN Human Rights Commission, chaired
by Eleanor Roosevelt, who considered its successful negotiation her
crowning achievement. It has since been codified and extended repeatedly
in international treaties, resolutions, conferences, and national constitutions
of newly-formed states. It exerts an enormous influence on lives all
over the world.
I distributed the
declaration at last year's Commencement for a particular reason, thinking
I would do it only that once. But your classmate and College Government
president, Marisa van Saanen, asked me if I would repeat the gesture
this year and so I shall to honor Marisa and the exceptional leadership
she and her cabinet members provided this year (a leadership of peace
and justice), to honor all of you and your many triumphs and aspirations,
to honor this College and the unfinished business it falls on you now
to take up with the courage, creativity, and tenacity we have come to
admire in you.
I hope you'll keep
this declaration (tied with a ribbon) as a symbol of the strings that
are attached to your diploma, as a reminder, always, that with rights
come responsibilities to preserve the institutions of freedom; with
privileges come duties to others less fortunate than you; with wisdom
comes an obligation to use your knowledge in the cause of justice; with
power comes the opportunity to remove that which subverts love.
And one final request
as you take your leave. Please be forgiving, gentle, and compassionate
towards yourselves and one another. Don't struggle to do it all in the
first five years, or even the first 20. You will have plenty of time
-- trust me -- and each of you will craft your own special life of purpose,
and beauty, and meaning. Save some time simply to be. Treasure your
friends. Prize your families. Notice the trees reflected in a lake.
Stay together. Breathe and be mindful. Live each moment as if you love
yourself -- and you'll discover one day that you do.
I thank you, magnificent
seniors, for all you have been, and are, and will be -- for each other
and for this College, for the past and for the future, for your families,
for the nation, and for the world. I celebrate your successes and I
send you forth with my pride, and with my love. Go in joy. Go in peace.