I am initiating an experiment with this blog. Starting today. For a dozen years and more, I’ve been writing — often for invited speeches and at times just for myself — pieces of my story of learning to lead Wellesley College. Pieces, too, of attempts to apply, in different settings, lessons forged in the Wellesley caldron. With the passing of years, and the waning of memory, I want to begin releasing these stories out into the world — for whatever use they may be to anyone else.
One of the lessons I have long labored to learn — sneaking up on it in good times and bad—is how “to do happiness right.” That’s why I have chosen as a title for this extended blog a line from a poem by Mary Oliver, who was a constant companion through my presidency. A line from her poem, “Poppies” …
“Of course loss is the great lesson” of life, Mary Oliver writes, “But also I say this. That light is an invitation to happiness and that happiness, when it’s done right, is a kind of holiness, palpable and redemptive.”
And so I’ll start here, in digestible bites — one bite at a time — to see what light I can shed, and what happiness I can find, in releasing my stories in this unconventional way.
Here we go …
For fourteen years, I served as the twelfth president of Wellesley College, one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges, and my alma mater. I loved being president of Wellesley. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I’ll always be grateful that the fates delivered that opportunity to me. I know from observing presidential searches since the one that changed my life how improbable it is that any one person, however worthy, is given the nod.
I was an unlikely candidate, unprepared in obvious respects, when, in the spring of 1993, Wellesley’s presidential search committee sought me out. I was chairing a small department at the Harvard School of Public Health, hadn’t been a provost or a dean, lacked the administrative credentials or the leadership experience that would have made my selection a sure bet. But something magical happened in my final interview with the search committee. All twenty members had been conducting telephone references with my colleagues and acquaintances, and our interchange on that sunny afternoon looking out over a meadow, swans in the distance floating on a lake, was alive with voices from the past and the future. Midway through the first hour we all began to sense that I was to be Wellesley’s next president.
The search process had an integrity, we all felt that, a seriousness of purpose and an honesty on all sides that set a mood — a blend of humility, confidence and transparency — that stayed with me through my tenure in the job. I knew I had much to learn, knew that the selection committee knew that too, but trusted I would find the resources to teach me what I needed to know. I sensed too, albeit vaguely then, that in growing myself into the role, I would be coaxing the college forward toward its future. The frame of mind that called me back to Wellesley in 1993 was not so different, in retrospect, from the one in which I had left, three decades earlier, on my graduation day, June 6, 1966, equipped with the very best a liberal arts education has to offer: an invitation to a life of learning.
In August of 1993 I began to immerse myself in unfamiliar rhythms, voices and values of a college that, over those three decades while my thoughts were elsewhere, had changed at least as much as I had. And yet, the more I saw of the new Wellesley the more conscious I became of a tension between stability and change. As different as the contemporary college was from the one I had known, world events, it seemed to me, were moving faster than almost anyone on campus seemed willing, or able, to see. I wondered how we would know how well we were preparing students to grapple, imaginatively and responsibly, with complex challenges they would face during their lives, challenges that seemed likely to test their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resilience beyond anything my generation had encountered.
The arc of my presidency took us toward and then through the turn of the millennium, through the 9/11 terrorist attacks a year later, and the vengeful wars that followed. We watched varieties of contagions spread around the world (infectious diseases, tainted foods, corporate misconduct, economic woes) and, with Hurricane Katrina and the South Asian tsunami, sensed that we humans were fast exhausting the carrying capacity of the earth. The nation’s politics were becoming increasingly polarized, and the world order was shifting ominously. If we opened our eyes to these realities, we were almost daily reminded of our growing interdependence on a fragile planet, an immature species more adept at tribalism than globalism.
I became convinced that our students were going to need a twenty-first century liberal education better attuned to their generation’s global imperatives of interdependence, sustainability, and mutual cooperation, an integrated education the crafting of which would probably have to unseat many of the assumptions and practices built into the American academy as it had evolved. I was less clear then than I wanted to be about the specifics of the changes that would become unavoidable, less clear about how those changes might be carried out in time to preserve humanistic values that I was sure the American academy, for all its faults, came closer to embodying than did any other institution of which I was aware.
At the same time, in the heat of the moment, I was going to have to fashion myself into the leader of a small, strong-willed, refreshingly skeptical and yet warmly welcoming community dedicated to teaching women how to learn and to lead, “to minister, not be ministered unto,” as the ancient motto of the college proclaimed. This is some of the story of how that adventure unfolded, of what it taught, and how it felt to me from the inside out.
A dozen folding tables dignified with white tablecloths hold mounds of fruit and bite- sized sweets, a comforting diversion for the clusters of strangers all feeling their way. We’ve snaked in a caravan of sorts, an impromptu parade, along the path by the lake from the chapel to the sloping lawn down from the president’s house. Food service staff are passing cups of lemonade, and Randi, their leader, has just made a point of slipping one to me, trapped as I have inadvertently become under a sweltering sun, a one-woman receiving line caught off guard. I’ll learn later to anticipate the crush of parents craving a moment with the president, aching for confirmation that their daughters will be seen here, appreciated, even, dare they hope, loved.
I’ll learn Randi’s name too, in due course. But today I’m grateful for the name tags we all wear. Some day off in the future my chief of staff, Pat, will remark to me that attaching a label to the president makes about as much sense as affixing one on Big Bird. It will be two years, though, before I find and hire Pat, and several more beyond that before I’ll have earned my feathers and begun to fill out my role. Before I’ll outgrow my name tag, if never all of my self-doubts.
For now I’m relieved that the parents — the mothers especially — are saying they were moved by the words I spoke from the chapel pulpit minutes before we set out on our little unplanned parade. I led us across a stone bridge over a narrow brook, then watched the crowd behind me swarm over the lawn below the stately mansion soon to be my new home.
The pulpit. When I called a former mentor some three months ago to tell him that the presidential search committee had asked me to come by for a chat, his enthusiastic response was, What a great bully pulpit for you! He added that he would be happy to serve as a reference for me, while I wondered what sort of sermons I’d be preaching if my life were to take this surprising turn.
It was only two years earlier that I had sat with my Wellesley classmates on this lawn, a random member of the class of 1966 back for its twenty-fifth reunion and thereby entitled to hold its Sunday picnic on this special greensward edging the lake. In the photo of that occasion framed on my dresser I’m sitting cross-legged on the grass leaning into my former roommate, Joan, delighting in her company and blithely indifferent to the large white house above us off in the distance. Had someone suggested on that sunny June afternoon that I’d be its next occupant, I’d have laughed.
Now we’re late into August and I’ve felt the excitement build in anticipation of the arrival of the Class of 1997, the incoming first-year class. For weeks it’s been as though a weather front was heading our way, a composite of individual dramas playing out across the country and around the world as members of this new class made their final preparations to push off familiar shores in search of new adventures. “Incipit Vita Nova,” proclaims the seal of the college, words borrowed from Dante more than a hundred years ago, here begins a new life, year after year, decade after decade, and right here, right now.
An intense and elegantly-dressed woman, flanked by two mortified-looking teenagers, elbows her way to the front of my disorderly receiving line.
“These are my daughters,” she announces for all within earshot to hear. “They are twins. They are my pride and joy. They are my life’s work. And I am counting on you to take good care of them.”
“I’ll do my best,” I smile, shooting the wincing twins what I hope will be read as a glance of sympathy. “I’m new, too, as you know,” speaking to the twins, “and I’m wondering, as I’ll bet you are, whether this place will have expectations of us that we won’t meet. But we will fulfill the promise Wellesley saw in us, you and I, because the community will rally to see to it that we do.”
Originally published at medium.com