Wellesley College Alumnae Association Annual Meeting
President H. Kim Bottomly
June 8, 2008
Good afternoon. I hope that you all enjoyed a fabulous weekend of connecting with each other and with Wellesley. Like those in the class of 2003, this has been my first Wellesley reunion as well. Throughout the weekend, I participated in stepsinging, enjoyed several meals under the big tent on Severance green, visited briefly with many of you and watched the amazing parade: a sea of color and smiles.
I would like to congratulate all of you on organizing a wonderful weekend and a successful Reunion 2008. I want to particularly thank the Board of the Wellesley College Alumnae Association and Susan Challenger ’76, director of the Alumnae Association, and her team for all of their work on behalf of Wellesley and Wellesley’s alumnae.
I am delighted to be here speaking to you as the new president of Wellesley College — at last symbolically as well as contractually. I thought I would talk to you about Wellesley through the eyes of a newcomer. After all, it was just a little over a year ago, that Wellesley announced that I would be the 13th president, about 10 months ago that I arrived, and a few weeks ago that we had the inauguration ceremony. Some of you may have read or heard my inaugural speech. In it I described Wellesley College as “a unique and glorious institution that makes a difference for women.” This phrase was not an oratorical device, but something I have come to realize. I have spent my first year as president on campus getting to know the institution, the students, the faculty and staff. I have recently begun traveling and meeting with alumnae and I look forward to continuing these travels in the fall. Let me tell you what I have noticed in my first year about our faculty, our students and our alumnae.
- I have noticed the extraordinary dedication and commitment of this faculty to inspiring and educating our students. Recall that “ordinary” to me is Yale — a not inconsiderable place — so “extraordinary” is intendedly a strong statement.
- I have noticed that we have a true community of scholars here. The faculty takes their scholarship seriously and inspires students to emulate them.
One of the awardees at this year’s Alumnae Achievement Awards spoke about the impact of Wellesley’s remarkable faculty. She said that she came to Wellesley like most students do, known as an outstanding and dedicated student. She prepared assiduously for her first class, reading all the assigned works as well as the recommended readings, and then reading more on her own. At the first opportunity in class, when the professor asked her, “What did you think about event X,” she held forth for several minutes, demonstrating her now vast and thorough knowledge of the event. When she finished and leaned back proudly, the professor frowned, shook his head sadly, and then repeated his question. “That changed my life,” she said.
- I have noticed (in my conversations with small groups of faculty throughout the year) a widespread commitment to the ideals of a liberal arts education. I think this faculty is uniquely suited to defining liberal education in the future — something that needs to be done.
- I have noticed our students — it would be impossible to be around them for even five minutes without noticing them. I already knew they were smart — I had seen the data. But they were smart before they got here. I hadn’t seen the effect of Wellesley on them. We give them enormous confidence and the will and ability to become the best version of themselves. That turns them into very impressive young women.
I just saw an example last week. At the Commencement ceremonies, a student was introducing our keynote student speaker. She began by welcoming everyone, and in the course of that, turned to me and said, “Thank you, President Walsh…” She stopped immediately, a stricken look on her face. The whole tent became absolutely silent with the heavy hush of group embarrassment. She broke the silence by putting her hand to her forehead and saying, “Oh noooo. I knew I would do that. I practiced and practiced, I kept repeating to myself, I am not going to say President Walsh, I am not going to say President Walsh — and then I said it. Oh noooo!” She said all of this while standing in front of an open microphone, saying it to all of the hundreds of attendees. It was so charming and open that it ended the awkward moment and turned it into a tentful of smiles. She made an understandable mistake, paused briefly, and then recovered with humor, confidence and grace. What was most striking was how comfortable she felt emoting this way in front of the Wellesley College community. She knew the audience would understand. She didn’t forgive herself, but she knew the rest of us would. Wellesley provides this kind of environment for our students.
Hillary Clinton told a similar story when she came to campus this year during a campaign stop. She said she arrived as a first year with little self-confidence and thought her admission had been a mistake. In the first semester, she called her mother and said she felt under qualified to be here and thought maybe she should go somewhere else. Her father supported her return home, but her mother convinced her to stick out the first year and see how it went. We know the rest of the story — we see no lack of confidence today.
- I have noticed our amazing alumnae. In my inaugural address I referred to you as “a powerful organizational network structure that supports women graduates” and as a “bright and brave sisterhood, a network that spans the generations and the globe.” “Women,” I said at another point, “leave here with strong bonds to what will become life-long female friends, and are tightly enmeshed in a world-wide network of accomplished women.”
Here’s a good example of that. You have all probably already heard the story of what our alumna, Pam Melroy, the spaceship Challenger commander and a member of the wonderful yellow Class of 1983, did at my first board of trustees meeting. In the middle of the meeting, a telephone rang on the sideboard. It was answered on speakerphone, and we all heard Pam Melroy, speaking to us from the space station — calling from space to welcome me, the new president, to Wellesley College. It was wonderful, I loved it, and it is a charming story. I think most of you have heard before that she called in from space.
But here is what may not have occurred to you — the subtext of this story. Think of what this means. Here is a woman flying in outer space, the second female commander of the space shuttle, a person immediately involved in an enormously complex and visible job, a woman with huge life and death decisions to be made daily, a person being watched and lionized by people all over the globe — and she thinks of Wellesley. It was no simple matter for her to organize and orchestrate that phone call. But what is truly impressive is that she did it at all — that in the middle of all this, she thought of Wellesley. This, for me, epitomizes the Wellesley alumnae and the relationship they have with this College.
Those are a few of the things I have noticed. Let me tell you some of the things I have been doing.
When I arrived I was faced immediately with the need for filling two important positions that had become vacant at the end of the previous academic year: the dean of students and the vice president for resources and public affairs. As you may have heard, earlier this spring I announced the successful completion of national searches for both of those positions. Cameran Mason, Wellesley ’84, and a member of the BLC, began at Wellesley on May 1st as our new VP for resources and public affairs. She has served as vice president for institutional advancement at Barnard College for the past seven years. Our new dean of students, Debra Demeis, will assume her responsibilities on July 1st. Debra is currently the dean of the college at William Smith College, the women’s college component of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, a position she has held for 13 years. Both of these women will be strong additions to my already very effective senior management team.
We have recently had a new departure. As you probably all are aware, Jane Mendillo, our chief investment officer, will be leaving on July 1. She will become the president and CEO of Harvard Management Group. Needless to say, all of us at Wellesley are very sorry to be bidding farewell to Jane Mendillo, even as we are aware of the tremendous opportunity that this new role presents for her. A search committee to find a new CIO has been appointed and has been working for the past one and a half months on identifying candidates for this position.
Those are specific things. What have I been doing in the broader sense? I have begun some necessary steps to help Wellesley College make the transition into the new era we have entered, positioning Wellesley to adjust effectively to changing times. In my inaugural address, I spoke of the need for a fresh look at liberal arts education in the 21st century. I spoke of the need to be sure that we retain that “unchanging aspect” of Wellesley, that “permanent characteristic of mind and spirit” that identifies a Wellesley woman, and pointed out that, “Previous presidents all recognized, as I do, that to remain the same in its most important aspect, Wellesley must adapt.”
We are in a new world now, and it is very different from that one most of us emerged from college into. We studied other cultures and political systems as a matter of academic interest. Now they need to be studied as a basic skill. It is not enough today to just understand our culture and our history, or to just understand the culture and history of other nations. We must also understand how they understand our history, and how they disagree with how we understand theirs. Our students today — those I referred to as “the architects of the 21st century” — must interact in a globalized and internationalized world, and a world in which our nation’s views are not necessarily the dominant (or even most important) views. How we see ourselves is different from how others view us. It is crucial for students to realize this, and this learning must be built into our curriculum. We must also see that this learning results in part from practice on campus, through intercultural interactions.
There is a difference between the goals of 20th-century and 21st-century women. Students recognize this; we must too. We 20th-century women, I noted in my inaugural address, “did the very hard work of demolishing hindering structures that had existed for millennia; whether we intended to or not, we cleared the site. Twenty-first century women have the even harder work to do of rebuilding the site as a better place.” This is a very different task, requiring somewhat different preparation.
Finally, what themes am I working on?
- The first I call “messaging” — by this I mean coherence — presenting a coherent story to the outside world about what Wellesley is and what Wellesley does. This is not as easy as you might think.
Consider our academics. We all know Wellesley is exceptional, but few, I have learned, can straightforwardly express why this is so. I have appointed an academic planning committee, consisting of 10 faculty members, chaired by the college dean. Their task is to construct a broad, but specific academic plan, which will be used to guide our decision-making on academic and budgetary matters in the future. This will allow us to rationally plan for the future and to allocate our resources appropriately.
It also will allow us to clearly articulate just what it is that we do.
I would like the public perception of Wellesley College to match our own perceptions. It doesn’t quite yet. We have an educational task before us and, with the formation of the academic planning committee, have taken the first step. And I will turn to you, our alumnae, to help us with step two.
As alumnae, you are our ambassadors. Your accomplishments, your passions, your commitment to make a difference and lead an examined life — you, individually and collectively, attest to the power of a Wellesley education. The power of both your example and your words on behalf of Wellesley cannot be over-estimated. As we sharpen the way we describe the magic that happens to students during their time here, we will rely on YOU. We need you to help us help others understand the transformative power of a Wellesley education. Share the Wellesley story and your story. Share with your kids’ guidance counselors, your employer, your friends, your co-workers, the women you meet in the playground — tell your Wellesley story as often and as powerfully as you can.
- The second theme is affordability.
We need to get the word out about our affordability. My fear isn’t that we will not be able to convince applicants that they can afford to come here — we are pretty good at that already. My fear is that we won’t get a chance to convince the non-applicants. If they don’t apply, we can’t show them, and many excellent prospects don’t apply because they think they can’t afford to come here. We don’t get a chance at them. We need to get the message out everywhere that if you belong at Wellesley College, we will see that you can come. For example, we have recently taken a significant new step in this regard. As I’m sure you are aware, in January the Board of Trustees approved our enhanced financial aid policy, which will eliminate loans for students from families with calculated annual incomes below $60,000 and reduce loans by one-third for students from families with calculated annual incomes between $60,000 and $100,000. These loans will be replaced with grants. The new initiative will increase Wellesley’s spending on financial aid to about $40 million per year, 80 percent of which comes directly from our endowment. We believe that this is money very well spent to ensure that the brightest young women are able to attend Wellesley. It is your good efforts that allow us to have this money.
- Thirdly, we need to communicate more widely what we do so well for the women who come here. What are those things we do so well? I alluded to four of them in my inaugural address.
• We provide a superior liberal arts education; we are regarded as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the world.
• We provide an educational experience filled with role models and models of gender cooperation and collaboration (unlike other institutions 58% of our outstanding professors are women and 42% men).
• We provide an education and learning experience in which women invariably leave with far more confidence in their knowledge and ability than they arrived with.
• We provide a powerful organizational network structure that supports women graduates. That’s you! Our alumnae network really has no match anywhere else in the world. As this Reunion weekend so powerfully demonstrates, you inspire and support each other. You also inspire our students, both current and prospective. Our students often enter Wellesley a bit daunted by the footsteps in which they are expected to follow. You have set the bar very high. But, by the time they leave Wellesley, our students are emboldened to dream big and aim high. They are emboldened, in part, by the powerful example set by those who have come before them. And they know that they are graduating into a sisterhood of women who stand ready to extend a hand up to this very high bar.
In my charge to the Class of 2008, I spoke to students about the Boston Marathon. As many of you will remember, each year there are stories of marathon runners who turn around on Route 135 after they pass Munger and loop back past the Sports Center, just so they can experience Wellesley’s scream tunnel again. Like our seniors, you too will be leaving Wellesley today. As you continue your journey, may Wellesley — the alumnae who comprise its amazing sisterhood of women, the faculty who continue to inspire your mind, and the landscape that never ceases to make spirits soar — be your lifelong scream tunnel. We will be cheering you always on toward your goal. And you will hear us; you will always hear us. You have only to listen.