Wellesley College Convocation 2007
President H. Kim Bottomly
September 4, 2007
"Citizens of the World"
The convocation is a time and a place for us symbolically to mark a new beginning each year. This year is a beginning in many ways. It is truly a beginning for our class of 2011, for our new faculty, our new staff, and also for me, the new president. I welcome you. I am pleased to greet my colleagues from the faculty and staff, the classes of 2009 and 2010. I especially welcome the members of the class of 2008 – this convocation marks the beginning of your senior year at Wellesley. We will work together to make it a memorable one.
I am a newcomer to the shores of Lake Waban. In a larger and more intellectual sense, we are all newcomers. The world is a complex and diverse place, and the rate at which it is becoming more complex and more diverse is accelerating. Students, in your lifetime, you won’t be able to be what most of your parents are, comfortably enclosed citizens of a single country. You must be citizens of the world. The rest of us must align ourselves to the changing environment as well – we all must become global citizens, fully aware of and engaged in this newly interconnected world.
You all know about globalization, but perhaps some may not appreciate the magnitude of the effect it will have. David Held and his colleagues define globalization as “the widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life, from the cultural to the criminal, [from] the financial to the spiritual.”
We all know that help-desk employees, tax-return accountants and computer programmers in India and elsewhere now deliver services in real time to their employers in Europe and the U.S.A. The economist Richard Freeman estimated that in 1984 the “global economic world” – those actually participating in some way in international trade and commerce – was about 2.5 billion people. By the year 2000, he estimated, that number had increased to 6 billion, including an additional 1.5 billion new workers in the global economic labor force – the equivalent of the entire U.S. workforce was added to the global economy in only 15 years. And Thomas Friedman, in his book, The World is Flat, noted that “those new workers are not just walking onto the playing field … They are … sprinting there.” Friedman repeats the common wisdom that things have barely begun to change so far; but the changes will be massive, and they will be not only economic, but social and cultural as well. We are now seeing only the beginnings of the changes that will affect us all.
In our last onset of massive and rapid change, the Industrial Revolution, a new era was born, unlike anything that had gone before, requiring new institutions, new skills, new approaches. That era was marked by enormous changes in societal structure and, some maintain, in individual psychology. The Industrial Revolution was also the birthplace of new academic disciplines, as philosophers attempted to interpret the new world, and “positive philosophy” morphed into the social sciences. New modes of art and literature arose as additional attempts to interpret the unprecedented. In so many ways the world after that Industrial Revolution bore little resemblance to the world that preceded it. Walter Bagehot, a social scientist and one of the early editors of The Economist, writing of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800’s, wrote that a “peculiarity” of that age was the sudden acquisition of so much knowledge and the incredible rapidity of social change: "the most marked result [is] that by it everything is made ‘an antiquity.’” Today we stand in awe of the incredible changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. The received wisdom today is that because of our current technological revolution, the new changes to come in the next few decades will dwarf the previous changes that Bagehot was writing about and will make it seem slow.
Who knows what changes will emerge from our new era? One thing we can be sure of, both from historical precedent and common sense: among institutions and individuals, there will be those who adjust and adapt, and those who get left behind. We must work together to insure that Wellesley will not be left behind.
Let’s talk about what problems may be encountered in this new era. We have all witnessed the often-amusing beginnings of that new era: little things that remind me of the small trickles of water from cracks in a dam that is about to burst. There are the classic funny but sad stories of corporate cultural misunderstandings – Chevrolet unsuccessfully trying to sell a Chevy Nova in South America, not realizing that “no va” meant that “it does not go.” They changed the name to “Caribe” and then it sold fine. My favorite was always the Swedish company Electrolux trying to sell their vacuum cleaners in the U.S. with the slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”
These are small manifestations of the new problems to come. I can give you a personal example. My brother, who is a diesel mechanic working for a large building firm, taking care of their cement mixers, forklifts and other large equipment, told me this story a number of years ago. His company had been purchased by a Japanese firm and, to honor the workers, they invited them all to a dinner at the end of their work day. From his description, the menu sounded fabulous to me. But to him, the inclusion of sushi and dumpling-like foods was strange and unsettling.
Not understanding, he and his co-workers were critical of the experience. The Japanese firm, knowing that a large portion of Seattle’s immigrant population is Asian, would reasonably expect a Seattleite to be sushi-savvy, not understanding the world of these American blue-collar workers. The workers, not understanding the company’s gesture, concluded that the new firm would never understand them and their concerns. With good intentions on both sides, it was a bad start to a new relationship.
These examples are intended only as passing illustrations of the fact that we are all new arrivals in this emerging new world. All of the mistakes I have cited could have been made by any of us. A new type of global citizenship is needed; a new community of broader understanding. Regardless of our experiences and backgrounds, we are all new arrivals to this world community. We are, in other words, intellectual immigrants. Our old ways won’t suffice in this new world.
Are these struggles really different from the past? There always have been generational differences in knowledge and culture, but never, many think, at the scale that we are now seeing. We baby-boomers were able to form the world around ourselves to a large extent, to reshape the world and try to make it to our liking. For you students it will be much more difficult. You are immigrants to this new world and like immigrants to a new physical place must learn how it operates before you can have an impact on it. You students’ generation will have to form your lives around being new arrivals – new arrivals in a world denoted by scientific changes, socio-cultural changes, changes in higher education, and many other changes. What are some of these changes – a few examples we can see already?
Social/cultural: Communication and knowledge has reached into and out of corners of the world that it never could before. Internet access has reached into places that don’t have plumbing yet. Communication and knowledge is reaching out of small places and into the United States. The United States is the world’s largest importer of “foreign cultural goods” (art, antiques, books, newspapers, music), spending over $15 billion on such items in 2007. We import over twice as much cultural goods as we export.
New types of spatially separated communities are regularly being formed that transcend political boundaries, or geographic boundaries of any sort. Most of our social and political theories assume the existence of communities that are territorially defined. Borders are disappearing, and new ways of thinking about community have not yet been developed. We know these communities are forming, they are out there – we may even belong to some of these communities – but we as scholars and students don’t fully understand them or their implications. Others fear their implications.
We have all read of countries trying to halt or limit Internet access to their citizens, recognizing that global communities are a threat to national control. At another level, equally worrisome, large and medium sized corporations have often moved out of national boundaries putting themselves beyond the control of national governments, to this point beyond the control of anyone.
Demographic changes: Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of the Harvard Immigration Project, recently pointed out that not only did the U.S. immigrant population grow by over 30% in the 1990’s, it was qualitatively different as well. Up to 1950, he points out, about 90% of our immigrants were Europeans or Canadians. Today, almost 80% percent of our immigrants are from Latin America and Asia. He says that “These immigrants come to thrive,” and that immigrants now are overrepresented in the category of people with doctorates, noting that by a recent count, half of all entering physics graduate students are immigrants as are almost a third of all scientists and engineers working in California’s Silicon Valley. About a third of all Nobel Prize winners in the United States were immigrants - in 1999, all three U.S. winners were.
Scientific advances: There has been a dramatic change in focus in the sciences and in medical research. Traditional real-life experiments have become virtual experiments by drawing in the expertise of computer scientists.
The change in computing power has already affected scientific methods of investigation, and will have an even greater effect in the years to come. The original large mainframe computer that my husband fed IBM cards into in the 1970’s to analyze large data sets was revolutionary in its own way, allowing him to do statistical analyses that could never be done before. But that computer was capable of only about ½ a MIPS (MIPS stands for millions of instructions per second). Compared to his room-sized computer at ½, today’s little hand-held cameras are approaching 100 MIPS, and your laptop probably is capable of thousands of MIPS.
Biologists, using this power, began partnering with computer scientists to handle the huge amounts of data generated by newly developed technology. When I first started training in a laboratory, each experiment could be analyzed and summarized on the same day the experiment concluded. We could carry out several experiments a week. Now each experiment takes months, even years to analyze due to the huge amount of data we can now generate with the newly developed technology used to perform the experiment. From the computer science point of view, the new biological data and the dilemma they posed proved an excellent driver for new methods in a field called bioinformatics, and provided new methods of data-handling, data visualization and data-mining that revolutionized the speed of scientific discoveries.
But an even more profound change is occurring. The traditional reductionist view of biologists, that is, one must understand structure and function in a cause and effect manner and do hypothesis-driven experiments, is changing. There are now attempts to simulate or model complex systems, eliminating thereby the need for extensive physical experimentation. This new approach is called systems biology.
One consequence of this is that computer scientists are no longer just developing data management systems for the biologists but are themselves intimately involved in the formulation of the experiment. Where will this lead and how will it affect the social structure of science is unclear, but this much is clear: The concept of a large well-funded laboratory headed by a single principle investigator – the way I spent my career – is becoming obsolete.
Changes in higher education: The student population has changed. In 1995, only 50% of U.S. elementary and secondary schools had Internet access. By 2003, almost 100% did. In 1960, less than 8% of our population had a college degree – today almost 30% do. In 1970 there were about 8 million students enrolled in college in the U.S. (2 million of them in private colleges). Today there are about 18 million enrolled (about 4 million of them in private colleges). In 1960, colleges and universities together in the U.S. had to spend about $43 million a year to educate their students. Today they spend well over $300 million a year. That’s in constant dollars, by the way (2002 dollars) – so it’s a real seven-fold increase.
What have these kinds of changes in higher education engendered? With increased size comes increased organizational complexity. And size is just a small part of it. Over the last 25 years, there have also been substantial increases in the volume of outside regulation, in the cost of running institutions, in the expectations of students and in the funding of colleges and universities. All of this had the effect of requiring us to stay constantly attuned to changes in labor law, ERISA-like retirement regulations, fringe benefit markets, financial markets, government and accreditation board expectations, legal mandates, financial aid concepts and many other things. Bureaucracy grew as higher education began to cope with this new era. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in the early 1990’s that throughout the 1980s, colleges and universities had hired more non-teaching professionals than any other category of employee (including administrators and faculty). During that same period, they hired twice as many non-teaching staff members as faculty. This was not done for the sheer love of bureaucracy, but in an attempt to deal with increased complexity as the environment surrounding higher education institutions changed rapidly.
All of these changes have created challenges and have created the need for institutions of higher education to take a look at their role, preparing students for the New World they will encounter. With my new eyes, I can see that Wellesley, like other institutions of higher education, already knows it needs to meet this challenge. Students come together here from all over the world and from most states in the country. Programs emphasizing multiculturalism are stressed including various opportunities for travel abroad. The core curriculum is taught by scholars whose love of research allows them to be current, teaching not last generation’s but today’s knowledge. At Wellesley, we have the people; we have the programs; and we have the desire to meet the challenge.
Yet it is not enough just to have all the pieces. We must assemble them into a genuine experience. As with all great liberal arts colleges in this era, Wellesley inevitably will have to change in order to stay the same.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate a point. As some of you know, I spent my very early childhood in rural Montana, where the tallest building was two stories high, and where nothing exotic ever appeared, and no one looked different – absolutely everyone dressed in ordinary Sears-catalog clothing.
While I was still young – perhaps in kindergarten – I made a trip with my parents to the “big city” – Helena, Montana, to visit someone in the hospital. It seems small now, but it was a far cry from the only place I had known – bucolic rural Montana. I will never forget my first frightening day in the city. We were in the visitor’s reception area, and as my parents conferred with the physicians and nurses, I was apprehensively watching the elevator in operation as people walked into it, and the doors opened and closed. I had never seen or heard of such a thing, and the elevator looked like an inherently untrustworthy, infernal device. People would get in, the doors would close, and a short time later the doors would open and it was empty. The people were gone. Who knew where? Who knew what horrible thing had happened to them? The conference continued long enough that I saw many unsuspecting people calmly walk to their apparent doom, one group after another.
Then my parents finished and insisted that we were all to enter this machine together. I thought they had lost their minds, but with the trust of the very young, I walked in just ahead of them. Then, the unthinkable happened. A nurse called out to them about something, they stepped back to talk, and the doors closed between us, trapping me in that elevator alone. It started to move, and I jumped forward, pounding on the wall – the buttons on the panel lit up as I did so, and the elevator quickly slowed and then stopped. I watched in trembling relief as the doors began to open, readying myself for a dash for freedom. But as they opened I encountered one of the most horrible and terrifying visions of my life. There, standing side-by-side, blocking the whole doorway, were three large nuns.
I had never seen a nun before; I had no idea what a nun was. They were still wearing traditional garb back then, so what I saw were masses of shapeless fabric with three pale, disembodied faces floating on top of it, framed in tight white cloth bands. I didn’t know what they were, but I was certain I was looking at the reason for the disappearing people. As the faces leaned over and smiled benignly at me, I began to shriek in absolute terror, fought my way through them into the hallway, and continued to scream as loud as I could until my parents heard me on the floor below and came to my rescue.
Many years later, as a more mature and streetwise pre-teen living in Manhattan and reflecting back on this incident with acute embarrassment, I came to recognize that my fear of these sweet sisters (and of the handy elevator) had resulted not from any internal flaw, but rather from my insularity, from my narrow life experiences and my limited knowledge. I vowed then that I would never fear from ignorance again – and I think I’ve kept that vow.
But it isn’t easy. Life is filled with such moments, especially at the intellectual level, and our reactions to them are commonplace and must be confronted constantly. It is at the intellectual level that they are hardest to recognize for what they are. When confronted with an idea that challenges our deep-seated beliefs, one that is alien in origin and content, we too-often react not with interest at this fascinating new thought, but with hostility, with scorn – and with no thought or rational discourse about the idea. These ideas often threaten not our physical well-being, but the very foundations of our comfortable world, the premises upon which we’ve based our life to date. We dismiss such ideas as ridiculous without trying to understand them; too often we lash out at the person or group who expresses them. I think of these reactions as our intellectual “nun-in-the-elevator” moments.
As the world’s boundaries and separations disappear and direct cultural contact among nations accelerates rapidly, there will be the occasion for many such moments for us and for most of our population. Let me expand on this point. Why are intellectual “nun-in-the-elevator moments” important? We’ve all learned, often unconsciously, those mental sorting devices by which we perceive strangers and determine, on the basis of trivial external signs, whether they are "my kind" or not. These learned devices make it unnecessary to even need to talk to a person, or to use cognitive abilities of any sort, to know that some are too thin, or too dark, or talk too funny, or are too aggressive or too shy; they are too odd. The inventory could continue. You already know that you shouldn’t let these sorts of things stand in the way; you already know you should try to understand people. But in a more subtle process, and therefore a more dangerous one, we do the same in the intellectual realm. We know instantly that some ideas are not our kind, and we don’t just reject them – worse, we fail to even consider them. Everything we think and conclude rests in some ways on basic and often unaware premises – on the way we see the world. It is your way of seeing the world you must expand, and that your Wellesley experience must be designed to expand.
College is a time to question what we know and what we say. This in part explains why we place such an emphasis on diversity at Wellesley, and such an emphasis on tolerance and respect. One cannot be a nativist any longer. Different backgrounds, different traditions, different ethnicities – all are key to critical thinking. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt said, "The more people's standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel or think in their place ...the more valid my final conclusion, my opinion."
President Kingman Brewster of Yale put it just as strongly when he said that the primary purpose of a university is to “create an intellectual, artistic and moral impact on the shape of worlds to come….This mission depends on the creativity of our faculty…the ability of faculty from diverse backgrounds, experiences and accomplishments to interact, to discuss, to disagree and to push our inquiries in new directions. Heterogeneous groups design more innovative solutions to problems than do homogeneous ones and bring a higher level of critical analysis to decisions.”
Both Arendt and Brewster would agree:
- We need diversity for higher levels of critical thinking;
- We need those who represent the ideas, cultures, religions of the world community at large;
- We need to break out of our silos of thinking, heavily influenced by our cultural environment;
- We need to alter our view of tolerance into a more interactive level of listening and speaking;
- We must have a world that communicates better.
Diversity has a special meaning to Wellesley and other institutions of higher education. As a community of international students, students of a variety of ethnicities, students and faculty with many viewpoints, it provides a special training ground for future communication among peoples of different backgrounds. It provides a special environment for critical thinking across and within disciplines and we must continue to value this.
But it is not enough for us to just approve of this idea; it is not enough to have occasional events that celebrate it; it is not enough to just put people together and hope for the best. We need to build it explicitly and formally into our learning and teaching environment. The ability to live and communicate comfortably and effectively in a complex world of multiple cultures, experiences and viewpoints – the ability, that is, to be a true global citizen, will be a defining attribute of confident and competent people in our future. As Wellesley’s own Peggy Levitt said in a recent interview in The Boston Globe, “We should embrace people who know how to live between cultures and religions, because those are the people who are on the cutting edge of what it means to live in a global world.”
I began by pointing out that it’s a new world. We are all new arrivals. I would focus that by saying: Institutions of higher education must be the safe house for new intellectual immigrants. They must also be the Hull Houses for these new immigrants. Hull House, as many of you know, was an enormously successful creation of Jane Addams in 1889. Along with many other services, it functioned as a settlement house and greatly aided new immigrants to the United States to adjust, adapt and get acclimatized to their new world. It was a service organization but also a sanctuary. (Hull House, not surprisingly, had many Wellesley connections). We, as colleges, must be the Hull Houses for intellectual immigrants. We at Wellesley must examine our educational mission to be sure we are doing this. Old models may not suffice to accomplish it.
In making whatever institutional adjustments are necessary, we need to rely on input from the whole community – it is a complicated task. Most importantly, we need to take whatever steps are necessary to insure that we are guided by the wisdom and creative insight of the faculty, who are the backbone of our institution, its sine qua non. Insuring this requires an active effort. I mentioned earlier how colleges and universities had necessarily grown in complexity over the past few decades, requiring ever more administrators and more specialists to deal with problems requiring specialized knowledge and experience. At many (if not most) institutions of higher learning, this growth has resulted in a diminution in the voice of the faculty. We need the full voice of our faculty, and we must be certain that we continue to have it, whatever procedural adjustments are required to accomplish this.
Students need to actively participate as well. Wellesley is the perfect place to begin or continue your quest for global citizenship. It requires depth of knowledge and breadth of familiarity with many cultures. Above all, it requires communication skills. It requires:
- Listening with understanding to naysayers’ laments about a lost world, or a world that never was.
- Listening with understanding and genuine interest to those who hold views that are contrary to your beliefs and values.
- Listening with a discerning ear to reject hurtful, inappropriate or hostile comments.
- And, above all, understanding that multiculturalism doesn’t just mean listening to very different points of view; it means hearing them as well.
It is also important that the entire Wellesley community respond to diverse and challenging viewpoints with wisdom, with persuasion and, yes, with grace and graciousness under all circumstances and all provocation.
Let us all go forward into this year committed to becoming global citizens and to helping Wellesley become the ideal training ground for global citizenship.
And by so doing, let us put the lie to A.E. Housman’s famous lines,
“I, a stranger and afraid,
In a world I never made.”
- By vowing to learn enough so that we are not strangers in this new world,
- By vowing to understand enough so that we are never afraid in it,
- And by vowing to be wise, confident and active enough to actually have a strong hand in shaping it.
Somebody has to build this new world. Why not Wellesley people?
I look forward to discussing these and other ideas with you this year and for many years to come. I look forward to all of us working together to make this year a memorable one.
Let the year begin.