Beginning an Important Conversation

As I wrote earlier this month, the broad question What does it mean to be a woman in the 21st Century? will serve as the theme for a number of important conversations this year.

This is an important moment for these conversations and I look forward to engaging students, faculty, staff, and alumnae in this broad theme and the many implications and subtopics that this theme provides—including, initially, the topic of gender fluidity and its implications for a women’s college.

As I wrote to our campus community today: Wellesley College was founded to educate women who will make a difference in the world. Wellesley’s founders recognized that the education of women would confer powerful benefits upon both society and individuals. They also recognized that women faced significant challenges—social, economic, cultural—in attaining an education.

Wellesley remains steadfast in its mission, investing its considerable resources to awaken the potential of individual women and to give them the tools they need to make a meaningful difference. Wellesley is likewise committed to maintaining a community of individuals who embrace the College’s mission of educating women.

That said, there is great diversity today in the ways individuals experience and express their gender identity. Gender fluidity has implications for women’s colleges in general and for Wellesley College in particular.

We recognize that the issues of gender identity and transgender experience are relevant and complex. We must build a better understanding of these issues and determine what current policies and practices might need revision in light of this understanding

To begin this conversation, I will be appointing an advisory committee. Composed of students, faculty, staff, and alumnae, the Committee will have the following charge:

  • First: Inquiry. The Committee will determine and delineate the specific issues raised for a women’s college and our community at a time when gender fluidity is becoming increasingly acknowledged.  To accomplish this goal, they will seek input from all members of the College community.
  • Second: Education. Recognizing that different members of our community have varying levels of knowledge and understanding of this topic, the Committee will coordinate a year-long program of events and activities designed to bring all members of our community to a common baseline level of knowledge and understanding.  The Committee will also facilitate opportunities for many voices to be heard, both on campus and among our alumnae.
  • Third: Evaluation. Throughout the fall semester, the Committee will examine all relevant policies and practices on campus, will solicit input from key Wellesley constituencies and will determine whether and how they continue to serve the mission of the College in the context of new understandings about gender.
  • Fourth: Findings. At the beginning of the spring semester, the committee will present its findings regarding policies or practices that are affected by the College’s evolving understanding of gender and their impact on Wellesley’s mission. These findings, and subsequent discussion of them by the College’s governance bodies/structures, will guide recommendations to be made to the Board of Trustees.

Advisory committee members will be selected in consultation with the appropriate governance structure (i.e., Agenda Committee for faculty, College Government for students, Administrative Council for staff, and the Alumnae Association). I want to thank those of you who have already reached out to me to express your interest in participating in these conversations in some way—I encourage others who are interested to do the same.

I likewise invite all members of the community to be engaged in this dialogue throughout the year, and I welcome your feedback on the charge to the advisory committee.

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.

Wellesley’s Women in Public Service Institute

Photo by Richard Howard

Yesterday was a tremendous day at Wellesley. We launched the first Women in Public Service Institute—the flagship program of the new Women in Public Service Project—and, as part of the Opening Ceremonies, we welcomed to campus Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ’69 and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ’59. (You can see the video of their remarks on YouTube.)

Our Opening Ceremonies received quite a bit of press, including stories from ABC, The Boston Globe, and many others.

I was honored to be among so many smart, talented leaders yesterday, not only Secretary Clinton and Secretary Albright, but the 49 delegates.  Those delegates are emerging leaders from around the world, who had traveled far and endured incredible journeys just to attend the two-week Institute.  It was inspiring to hear the personal stories of these brave, bright, and committed young women.

Among our delegates are: a parliamentarian in Myanmar, who has worked to make the government accountable for its human rights violations against women; the youngest member of the Afghanistan parliament, who grew up under Taliban rule; a former journalist and now a parliamentarian in Kosovo, who is committed to press freedom and issues of human rights; and an Egyptian urban planner, who spoke about raising her daughters in a post–Arab spring Egypt.

Photo by Richard Howard

I was delighted that Wellesley could host the inaugural Institute of the Women in Public Service Project—a partnership between Wellesley and our sister colleges, and the U.S. State Department. I was also honored that Wellesley’s two Secretaries of State joined us for the occasion.

It was a rare and special moment to share the stage with the two of them yesterday.



Women’s Colleges for All

I feel strongly that we need more women in public leadership roles. After all, the global challenges of the 21stcentury must be addressed by women and men alike—they are too substantial to be handled by only half of our talent pool.

As I have blogged about before, Wellesley is helping to address this disparity through The Women in Public Service Project, an important new initiative with our sister colleges and the U.S. State Department.

I recently had the opportunity to write an opinion piece for The Washington Post on this very topic.


Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to give advice to your younger self? Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but it’s still an interesting assignment to ponder. I recently had the opportunity to think about—and write about—this very topic in an ongoing series, “Letters to My Younger Self,” published by The Daily Muse.

I was honored to be able to contribute my advice, and to be included among such distinguished women.

Visiting Japan Women’s University

Greetings from Tokyo, where it is a sunny autumn day. This past Saturday, I had the privilege of receiving the first honorary degree given by Japan Women’s University, where I addressed students, faculty, and alumnae on the 110th anniversary of this distinguished institution.  I also enjoyed the opportunity to meet with many Wellesley alumnae in Tokyo.

This is my second trip to Japan; the first was a visit guided by my former postdoctoral students, who had returned to Japan after completing immunology training at my laboratory at Yale. This time I had the good fortune to be led by Yoshiko Arikawa, President of Japan Women’s University, where I was given a tour of the campus, strolled the spectacular Izumi Float Garden, visited an analytical chemistry lab class, and enjoyed tea with young women who will be studying at Wellesley as part of our international exchange program. In the past few days I have been moved, as I was the first time, by this beautiful city with its magnificent history, and by the enduring spirit of the people I’ve met.

As I said in my speech, I have been struck by the similar philosophies, educational principles, and convictions shared by our two institutions. We are geographically separated, but Japan Women’s University and Wellesley College are sisters in our mission. The commitment to educating women has transcended any of our cultural differences throughout the last century. When Jinzo Naruse opened Japan’s first women’s university in 1901, he wanted to revolutionalize education for women in Japan—and, in turn, women’s freedom and opportunities. Similarly, soon after the visionary Henry Durant opened the doors to Wellesley in 1875, he declared, “The higher education of women is one of the great world battle cries for freedom, for right against might.” Our links are very direct.  Jinzo Naruse spent time at Wellesley College in the late 1800s, and he was inspired by what Henry Durant had accomplished.  He returned to Japan and founded JWU.

I also noted in my speech that Japan Women’s University and Wellesley College share an important history of educating women who make a difference in their communities and the world—but we share an even more important future. In these complex and perilous times, we need great leaders. And in the 21st century, women will have to be full partners leading with men, active designers and architects of a new, global society. The world’s leadership core emerges from the educated, from those who are lifelong learners. Wellesley women and the women of Japan Women’s University are among a core group who will take the lead to make the world a better place.

On my final day in Tokyo, just a few days before Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the partners we have in institutions like Japan Women’s University. I am thankful to President Yoshiko Arikawa for the kindness she has shown me during my time here. And I am inspired by the better future I can envision, which will be made possible thanks to the voices, perspectives, and ideas of the women we will send out into the world. Together, our institutions will continue to work to provide the great women leaders that are so desperately needed.

News from the Women in Public Service Project

This past March, I told you about an exciting partnership with a critical goal. The Women in Public Service Project—a collaboration among the State Department, Wellesley, and four of our sister colleges: Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, and Smith—seeks to advance women in public service and government leadership around the world. Over the past few months, the collaboration has taken shape in a number of exciting ways, and I’m thrilled to share some major news:

–On December 15, the U.S. Department of State will present the inaugural Women in Public Service Colloquium. As the project’s first global event and launching pad for future programs, the colloquium will convene public officials and policy makers as well as alumnae and students representing each of the founding colleges. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will deliver the keynote address.

–Wellesley will host the pilot Women in Public Service Summer Institute that will help train the next generation of the world’s women leaders. From June 11 through June 22, 2012, we will welcome to our campus promising women leaders from across the globe, including regions undergoing political and social transformation.

The project could not have come together at a more crucial moment in our history. Women hold only 17.5 percent of the world’s elected offices—and that percentage is even smaller in the U.S. In these complex times, we need strong and capable leadership that includes more women. And in our increasingly interdependent world, young women who will go on to lead must be given the opportunities and tools to build networks and engage with peers and mentors from near and far.

By sharing Wellesley’s extraordinary network, and by joining our resources with the State Department and the sister colleges, we can overcome the barriers that prevent more women from entering positions of public leadership, not only for the sake of women, but for the sake of the world. That’s why I’m so proud that Wellesley is playing a leading role in the Women in Public Service Project—it’s a natural extension of what we do: educating and empowering women who will make a difference.

I will join our students, faculty, and alumnae in representing Wellesley at the State Department in December—and I look forward to sharing the progress of this important endeavor with you.

Nobel Women, Noble Women

I was delighted to learn yesterday that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to three women. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman serve as role models to us all for their leadership in promoting peace and gender equality in Africa and the Arab world.

Awarding the prize to not one but three women sends an important message to the world about the role of women leaders in achieving just, humane, and peaceful societies. It is an illustration of the message that we live by here at Wellesley: that women can and do make a difference in the world.

Science Leadership, Women’s Leadership, and Cherry Blossoms

I have just returned from a trip to Washington DC, where the cherry blossoms were bravely brightening the parks, despite temperatures that never rose above the mid-40s.

On my first night I participated in a panel on women’s leadership at the National Archives. I joined Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College, and Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College. The panel at the National Archives is an annual event, where they invite women leaders from different sectors—this year it focused on academic leaders. One of the several points that I emphasized that evening was the importance of having inspirational and supportive professors to build the confidence necessary for women to become leaders—a fact fully appreciated by the many Wellesley alumnae in the audience, including the Class of 2010, who was strongly represented. In fact, I was both surprised and gratified by the turnout—the William G. McGowan Theater of the National Archives was almost filled, and there was more than 45 minutes of a lively Q and A afterward. Overall, I thought it was a great event. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education both reported on the panel discussion.

The next day, I attended a day-long meeting of ARISE (Advancing Research In Science and Engineering), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences committee on which I serve. This committee is composed of science leaders from both academia and industry. We continued to work on formulating policy recommendations that would ensure more stable funding of the science enterprise and better cooperation between the government, industry, and universities. As usual the day included much discussion and disputation; for me, the day was inspirational. I was impressed and gratified by the committee’s recognition that the social sciences and humanities often bear the brunt of funding cuts, and by their determination to avoid such cuts. We made good progress and I look forward to the next meeting.

Women leaders, good science, and cherry blossoms—a worthwhile two days.

Global Women’s Leadership

I am delighted to tell you about an exciting new partnership between the State Department, Wellesley, and four other leading women’s colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Smith—to advance our common goal of building and nurturing a generation of female leaders in public service around the world. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made this announcement on Friday night, during her keynote speech at the Women in the World Summit.

This is a wonderful opportunity to bring together Secretary Clinton’s leadership on these issues with that of the women’s colleges. Wellesley continues to play a critical role in educating the future thought leaders who will make a difference in the world.

We are now in the early stages of planning that will include a colloquium next fall, to launch this partnership. I look forward to sharing more details of this initiative in the coming months.