Wellesley College Convocation 2009
President H. Kim Bottomly
September 8, 2009
It is always tempting to use the opportunity of the convocation speech to propose new intellectual ideas and challenges. This year, given the times, I am going to resist that temptation and focus instead, as we all must these days, on pragmatic things. There is a risk in this. Sidney Morgenbesser, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, was once asked his opinion of pragmatism. He replied, "It's all very well in theory but it doesn't work in practice." (i)
We are beginning a new academic year today, and it will be an interesting one, with new programs beginning, new initiatives being discussed, new problems to be solved, and changes to be adjusted to. Last year was a difficult one for all of us, a year that affected everyone in some way, a year that tested the fabric of our community. That fabric, we learned, is made of sturdy stuff. There were stresses, there was some discord, there were sad moments. But the overriding memory I take away from that year of crisis is one of pride in our community. It was truly impressive to watch you all come together in problem-solving mode, to see you working together trying to solve near-insoluble problems, to hear you speaking up constantly for your colleagues, to watch you untiringly seeking the fairest and most humane option among the unappealing choices available, and to be receiving constantly your collective wisdom. We don’t like difficult years, we don’t want any more of them. But if I have to be in one, I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather spend it than here at Wellesley College. Last year we had to worry about the possibility of major consequences of the economic crisis. Would we still be affordable to students, and even if we were, would the perception that we are not hurt us in times like these? Would we be able to afford our students, given our very high and costly levels of financial aid and the anticipated increased demand for it? Would our alumnae continue to be able to afford to support us as they had in better times? These were just some of the big issues we had to prepare ourselves to confront successfully. We got through it; we positioned ourselves well for better times to come. And we thought strategically and moved forward, accomplishing many things despite the economy. Let me remind you of some of them.
- Our number of new applications for admission increased.
- Despite downward pressure on our operating budget, and recognizing the impact of the economy on our students and their families, we actually increased financial aid.
- Thanks to our hard-working Resources staff and our Trustees, alumnae giving actually increased last year.
- While most colleges and universities were freezing hires, we added 14 new tenure-track faculty members. I have met them all, and what a wonderful addition to our community they are.
- We continued important building projects.
And in the hurly-burly of budget worries, we may have overlooked some significant portents of the future, while we were not paying attention.
- Our faculty submitted an unusually large number of applications for outside grant and fellowship funding.
- Our students did unusually well in the competition for scholarships and fellowships – they always do well, but this year they were impressively competitive.
- All 13 of our varsity teams qualified for post-season play; tennis repeated as NEWMAC champion; three of our teams qualified for the NCAA tournament
We also made a number of long-reaching strategic decisions to enhance our intellectual community.
- We established the Albright Institute for Global Affairs; Professor Joe Joyce has been working with some of you on exciting plans for this inaugural year.
- We reaffirmed Wellesley’s commitment to the arts through the search for a new director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, during a time when we had frozen all staff hiring.
- We formalized our existing collaborative efforts with Olin and Babson colleges with the hope that doing so would create an opportunity structure to encourage and enable further collaborative efforts as they bubble up from the community.
We didn’t just react. We thought strategically. We continued to plan for the future. Some of it involved the newly formed Academic Planning Committee, the Task Force for the arts, the Task Force for the sciences, and the Task Force for the languages. Those of you serving on these committees know the exciting possibilities for the future they promise. It was a very good year in many respects, and we accomplished things that will serve us well in the future.
Despite these accomplishments, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one very happy to see the summer finally arrive last year. Most of us now leave the summer behind with some regret. Not regret for the weather – those who remained in the Boston area can assure you of that – but regret for the loss of some freedom to pursue selfish interests for a change. For me, it is the freedom to read for long hours at a stretch. My job is usually a 12-hour-a-day one, and I can’t find the time to read as much as I did before coming here. I use the summers to diminish that towering pile of books that keeps growing on my nightstand during the academic year. I’m happy to report that my nightstand is at least visible now.
Yet even as I read for pleasure, our community remains foremost in my mind. One of the books I read this summer was the economist Alan Beattie’s False Economy. (ii) He argues, rather controversially, that “the fate of nations is not determined by culture, history, or geo-political forces, but rather by the decisions people make in difficult times.” He offers many intriguing examples; one of interest to me was a comparison of the United States and Argentina. Two hundred years ago, both nations, he contends, were suited and poised to become enormously productive major economic superpowers. One did, the other didn’t, and the reason for the difference boils down to good and bad decisions made by individuals and institutions during difficult and contentious times. During such times, factions inevitably arise, each trying to protect its own interest, to protect the old ways, to do what seems the right thing to them. He offers many other examples, for one, the fact that, as he puts it, “Botswanans today are more than ten times richer than Sierra Leoneans. Yet forty years ago both countries were low-productivity agrarian societies…Both had very low rates of education...Yet one used its diamond wealth to create the fastest-growing economy on earth for thirty years; the other squandered it to become the poorest nation on the planet.” His central point is that if decisions are not made that have the long-term welfare of the whole large group and the whole institution in mind, decline and dead ends are what follows. Hard times are always a challenge; they are also an opportunity. I don’t mean that in the clichéd sense. Difficult times, times that require adjustment and change, are an opportunity for failure as well as for success. “History,” Beattie says, “is not determined by fate, or by religion, or geology, or hydrology, or national culture. It is determined by people.”
I will leave the details to your own reading of Beattie, and will leave the evaluation of his evidence to Wellesley’s capable economists, historians, and political scientists, but one thing is clear: we will have many decisions to make together over this year and the next few years. And, like in all difficult times, there is no existing yellow brick road for us to follow to arrive at the proper place. We will have to figure it out as we go along, and to do this we will rely on good sense, research, history, tradition, and the collective wisdom of our entire community. That last, that collective wisdom of our community, properly utilized, is a considerable resource. To use it properly, we must communicate effectively.
How does one communicate effectively, especially in an intellectual community? That question brings to mind another of the books I got to this summer. Michele Lamont, a Harvard professor of European Studies, of Sociology, and of African and African-American Studies, has a new book out, entitled, How Professors Think. (iii) Now, “how professors think” is a broad topic, obviously, and one that I imagine would generate a long humorous thread on Community. But her real subject matter is pointed to by the subtitle of the book: “Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment.” It is a study of peer review, and specifically of the deliberations of grant and fellowship panels – for you students who haven’t encountered them yet, these are the important groups that determine which proposals get funded and which don’t. I was interested for obvious reasons: I spent 27 years at Yale supporting my laboratory, which was completely dependent on grants that had to be reviewed by such panels. In addition, I served on many such review panels myself during my scientific career. Lamont’s research focuses on panels in the Humanities and Social Sciences, not the natural sciences, but I found the principles to apply straightforwardly to my own experience – academic judgment is academic judgment, whatever the area. One section of her book made me think about Wellesley College and the types of decisions we will be collectively making over the next few years. That section was a chapter on what she calls the “customary rules of deliberation.” In this chapter, she discusses the group attributes that distinguish between good panels and bad panels. Good panels made decisions that benefited the whole. That is, they were true to the goals and vision of the funding and advanced the scholarship of their various disciplines. Bad panels dissolved into rigidity and dissensus and because of that made very poor and inconsistent decisions.
One of the crucial elements that distinguishes good and bad panels, Lamont finds, is the presence of collegiality. “Panelists,” she says, “are expected to adopt a consistently respectful tone toward one another….Collegiality has a concrete effect on panel discussions and their outcome; it is the oil that keeps the wheels of deliberation turning.” A good panel ensues when the participants “listen carefully and are influenced by each other.” Breaches of collegiality, Lamont finds, “can go beyond creating discomfort. They can result in open conflict” and “undermine the group’s ability to reach consensus.” Collegiality and the “customary rules of deliberation” aren’t just nice things to do – they have a real and measurable effect on outcomes.
In telling you about some of my summer reading, I have made three simple points; let me summarize them. Because of the economic crisis and other changes, we are at an important point in our history and we must adapt and adjust to the changing times. Like it or not, it is not an option, it is a necessity. To do this properly, we must be wise in our deliberations and, among other things, recognize that our own self-interests and preferences may not comport with what is best for the institution. To achieve this collective wisdom, we must communicate effectively and respectfully, we must remain collegial even when not getting our way, we must put the interests of the institution on a par with our own. Since most members of our community already do this, I am very optimistic. Voltaire said, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.” I know he had us in mind.
We have hard work to do yet and many adjustments to make. One primary focus this year, for example, must be on figuring out what organizational changes are necessary to allow us to function efficiently and comfortably with a very much smaller staff. We will figure that out together, but in the transition year I can almost guarantee some inconveniences and a need for patience. We will have adequate staff in place to get everything done – but we need to get them in the right place before it will be done.
So this year will not be like last year, but it will still be a challenging one.
We will be making many decisions over the next several years; some of them may not be universally popular. The hard actions we took last year have removed some of the pressure. To guide these decisions this year, we will again be using various committees and groups with membership from all community constituencies. We will be reaching out, using existing governance structures, but also being as inclusive as possible. These committees, by focusing on priorities, will ensure that we make the best decisions possible. It is important that these groups be like Lamont’s “good panels” and that their deliberations and advice position us to be even stronger, even better in the future. Both books I cited point in different ways to the importance of good cooperative decision-making, as well as to the difficulties of attaining that ideal, especially in difficult times. Yet both make it clear that it is, in many ways, our own fault if we don’t arrive at the proper ends – it is not fate, it is not inevitable, it is not due to the obstinacy of those others who don’t properly see it our way – it is all on us. One of the authors appropriately quotes Shakespeare to this end:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
I have faith in us. And I look forward to a very un-dull year.
i New York Times, September 8, 2004
ii Alan Beattie, False Economy, Riverhead Books, 2009
iii Michèle Lamont, How Professors Think, Harvard University Press, 2009