The Importance of Being a Women’s College: Continuing the Conversation

In my Convocation address this week, I stressed the continued importance of being a women’s college today, and the advantages to our students stemming from Wellesley’s historic investment in women. This investment has paid off in generations of inspiring and dynamic Wellesley graduates making a difference in the world. As I said, this is the Wellesley “magic.”

Being at a women’s college matters. Being at Wellesley matters.

As I wrote to our students, faculty, and staff today—to continue to invest intelligently, and to serve all of our students well, it is important that we ask the question:  What does it mean to be a woman in the 21st century?  It clearly does not mean the same as being a woman in the 19th or even the 20th century – needs have changed, context has changed, expectations have changed, societal practices have changed, even the language has changed.

The broad question has several implications and will serve as the basis this year for a number of important discussions—and as the foundation for meaningful change in several arenas. We as a community will approach these discussions in Wellesley’s usual thoughtful and inclusive way, and in a way that is reflective of our longstanding values, and our mission.

To begin these discussions, the President’s Office will sponsor a range of community events this year (such as lectures, presentations, and panels), to explore what it means to be a women’s college at a time when the definition of gender is becoming more fluid. In addition, recognizing the importance of that fluidity, I will appoint a special advisory group this fall to consider and make specific recommendations to me and to the Board of Trustees on how Wellesley should best move forward on this issue, as an institution and as a community.

Certainly, there are many other implications to the question of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century—such as the one raised by Provost Shennan in his Convocation remarks concerning how to best support today’s liberal arts students in their transition to successful careers, especially in our changing world.

What Does Wellesley Mean to You?

It is August, the last month of summer. In just a few weeks, we will be welcoming students and faculty back to campus, and greeting our newest class—the purple Class of 2018.

In anticipation of this, I am starting to prepare my remarks for Convocation, the ceremony that marks the start of our new academic year. And I need your help!  My talk this year will concern the relevance of a women’s college today.  I would love to hear from students and alumnae: What does Wellesley mean to you?

I invite you to include your thoughts in the comments section below, or via Twitter: @hkbottomly.

To Wellesley, With Gratitude

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I am so very grateful for the love that Wellesley alums have shown over the last year. More than half of you, in fact 53.4 percent of our alumnae, donated to Wellesley during the last fiscal year, making it the highest “participation rate” that the College has seen in 12 years.

That percentage is a wonderful statement both about our strong and committed alumnae network, and about the value of—and appreciation for—the exceptional education that Wellesley offers.  On a practical note, the high percentage is important because it is a metric used to calculate college rankings; it also puts Wellesley in a good position to be able to receive grants from corporations and foundations.

I also want to give a special shout out to the Class of 2009 and the Class of 2013, for their incredible dedication to Wellesley. The Class of 2009 had an extraordinary 59 percent of alums contribute to Wellesley last year. (Wellesley hasn’t seen such a high participation rate for a 5th reunion year since the Class of 1956’s fifth reunion in 1961.) And 50 percent of the Class of 2013 contributed to Wellesley, which is a wonderful and impressive accomplishment for any class, but especially for one just one year out of college.

Wellesley is Wellesley because of the dedication of our alumnae, parents, and friends. Thank you for all that you do to support this special place.

The Hooprolling Tradition

hooprolling 2 2014Kudos to this year’s Hooprolling winner, Alex Poon ’14, who carried on the family tradition—32 years ago, Alex’s mother, Helen Poon ’82, was that year’s Hooprolling winner. In fact, Alex used a family hoop that has been used by every member of his family who has gone to Wellesley. All the names of the family members who have used the hoop are written on it, and star is placed next to their name if they win.

Congrats to Alex and to all the seniors who carried on this Wellesley tradition this morning.

Toward Sustainable Solutions

Last spring, a group of students from Fossil Free Wellesley (FFW) came to speak to me about Wellesley’s investment of endowment funds in fossil fuel companies. While advocating passionately for Wellesley to withdraw such investments, they also told personal, compelling stories about how fossil fuels had affected their lives. And thus began a broader conversation about what Wellesley could do, and should do, to address climate change.

Over the fall and this spring, a group of trustees, faculty, and staff met with FFW to discuss the request and to determine the best course of action for Wellesley. Today, I announced the decision by our Board of Trustees not to divest, but also that Wellesley has committed to undertaking several specific actions that will have an impact on our environmental sustainability.

While the Board of Trustees ultimately did not approve the request from FFW, all of us who have been engaged in these conversations have agreed from the very start that climate change is one of the most consequential issues of our time, and that we are committed to doing our part to make a meaningful difference in the world.

For the Record

Over the last two weeks, much has been written and debated—on campus and off, publicly and privately—about the installation of the Sleepwalker sculpture, which is part of Tony Matelli’s New Gravity exhibition at the Davis Museum. I have welcomed the depth of the dialogue and am grateful for the many voices and perspectives that have productively contributed to conversations about art, freedom, censorship, and feminism, to name a few.

The story played out on social media, and in the national media, where some strangers mischaracterized our college and our students. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal went so far as to refer to Wellesley students as delicate Victorian maidens. I set the record straight. My letter in response was printed in Wednesday’s paper.

On Academic Freedom

Recently, several disciplinary scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association (ASA), have called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, arguing that those institutions are complicit in Israel’s violation of the human rights of Palestinians. I have heard from a number of Wellesley alumnae and others about the ASA’s decision, and about the response from many American colleges and universities who have rejected that stance.

More than 150 college presidents have issued statements rejecting the boycott. In addition, a few presidents have withdrawn or threatened to withdraw their American Studies Association memberships. Many political and pressure groups have started email campaigns for and against the boycott.

As I explained in 2007, when I signed a petition as one of 400 presidents opposing a similar boycott at that time, boycotts of academic institutions by other academic institutions are fundamentally at odds with academic freedom. I rejected the boycott of Israeli scholars in 2007; I reject the similar boycott today. On the first of the year, I placed a statement to that effect on my President’s Page on the Wellesley website and added Wellesley to the list of academic institutions rejecting the boycott.

I firmly believe that presidents of colleges and universities should not take political stances, given that we are the public representatives of diverse intellectual communities that contain members with a wide variety of political and ideological views.

I have taken a stand on this issue because the boycott attacks the core of the academy—it violates our fundamental principles. My response, therefore, is made on moral and ethical grounds, not on political grounds.

Inspired by Kathryn, Continued

Throughout her long life, the late Kathryn Wasserman Davis ’28 served as an inspiration to all those whose lives she touched—whether it was through her work to bring about world peace, her insatiable appetite for learning, or her incredible philanthropic commitment to the many causes in which she believed.

My admiration for this quintessential Wellesley woman was reinforced today. I had the pleasure of hearing Wellesley’s own Craig Murphy, the M. Margaret Ball Professor of International Relations and Professor of Political Science, lecture on Kathryn’s work in the field of global governance, and how she correctly predicted, in her 1934 doctoral dissertation, The Soviets at Geneva, that the Soviet Union would join the League of Nations—a controversial and surprising prediction at the time. She was a pioneer in this seminal work, as she was in many ways—as a woman, as a scholar, and as an American in the field of international relations. In fact, she is most likely the first woman in the world to receive a PhD in this field.

The field of international relations benefitted greatly from Kathryn’s contributions nearly 80 years ago. And though we must ask ourselves how the field might have benefitted even more had Kathryn continued on as a scholar, we also know that the world is a better place because of her many subsequent experiences in and contributions to the world.

Investing in Children and the 100th Anniversary of Wellesley’s Child Study Center

It was a pleasure to welcome to campus Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children. Last night Ms. Miles, the first woman to lead the global charity that serves over 125 million children in need in the U.S. and around the world, delivered the 2013 Wilson Lecture.

She stressed that early childhood education is the key to opening up important opportunities for children—opportunities that have the potential to lift children out of poverty and free them to make important contributions to the world that benefit us all. Investing in children, Ms. Miles said, is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do—investing in children can change the world.

This year’s Wilson Lecture was a wonderful and fitting way to honor and celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wellesley’s Child Study Center. I am proud to have on our campus one of the oldest laboratory schools in this country, a place where young children can learn and develop, and where Wellesley students and faculty can engage in meaningful and important research.

The Wilson Lecture is a central part of our intellectual community—indeed, it is one of the highlights of the academic year at Wellesley.  I am delighted that Carolyn Miles could lead us in conversation about this most worthy topic.

A Weekend Among Friends

The glorious fall weather was picture-perfect this past weekend, as I welcomed to campus Wellesley parents, grandparents, siblings, alumnae, and friends for Family and Friends Weekend and Homecoming.

sophomore treeOne of the highlights of the weekend, as always, was celebrating one of Wellesley’s oldest traditions: sophomore tree planting. On Saturday, more than 150 students and their families gathered on the Academic Quad to dedicate the Quercus Rubra, or Red Oak, that the Class of 2016 had chosen as their tree.

At the Wellesley Debates this past weekend, Paulina Perlin ’16, Prerana Nanda ’14, Simone Thibodeau ’14, and Mariya Getsova ’15 debated the topic “The structure of the higher education system in the United States is not consistent with democratic values,” while Sophia Mo ’14 moderated. As always, the students did an excellent job of presenting arguments for or against the motion. The before- and after-balloting indicated that those debating against the motion swayed the audience with their arguments.

For me, the weekend is also a wonderful show of our school pride during our many athletic contests. I was happy to cheer on the Blue as they took on Cedar Crest in soccer, winning 9-0. Congratulations also to the residents of Pomeroy, who had the most Superfans at that game.

Family and Friends weekend was enhanced this year by Pam Melroy’s wonderful talk on Saturday night: From Wellesley to the International Space Station. A Wellesley alumna (class of 1983), and an astronaut who has logged over 900 hours in space, Pam Melroy was only the second woman to command a space shuttle. I am grateful to Pam, who also is a Wellesley Trustee, for returning to Wellesley to speak to students and their families about her experiences. She is always enlightening and engaging and, despite her profession, very much down to earth.

My thanks go to all of the students, families, faculty, staff, and alumnae who made the weekend such a success.