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President's Office | Remarks: Wells College Graduation

Globalism, Human Rights, Education:

The Agenda Ahead for the Class of 2005

There’s something so sweet about finally arriving at my Wells graduation. I started this journey a long time ago.

There’s a glimmer at the farthest edge of my mind’s eye, the memory of a singular moment that does not fade but rather becomes brighter and clearer with the lengthening of my days. I remember my first glimpse of the great frozen expanse of Lake Cayuga, rimmed with the whitest snows imaginable, rolling endlessly to the horizon that I could scarcely see from my perch in the Wells College Library. I was mesmerized by all that I beheld and experienced that day, daydreaming, rather than focusing on the scholarship exam in front of me—which is probably one of the reasons that I’m speaking to you today as a friend with fond memories rather than as a sister Wells alumna. I came here in January 1970 to take the Wells Fargo Scholarship Exam (given back then, with the prize being a full tuition scholarship). I didn’t win the scholarship; but I did get my first memorable taste of college life.

In some strange departure from normalcy—which I only now have begun to suspect was their slim grasp at a vacation—my parents decided to leave my five brothers in the care of an elderly aunt and drive me to Aurora in the middle of January in our old station wagon, long before anyone heard the phrase “SUV” or even “car heater.” I remember scraping ice from inside the windows for the last 50 miles. My parents (who were adamant that I should have the college education they were never able to obtain) were strict Catholics—so it took some doing, and a lot of pleading from me, to convince them that I should be allowed to consider one college that was not Catholic. Wells was it. Not Bryn Mawr, which was right in our back yard, or Smith or Wellesley. Wells. The appeal of the scholarship was not insignificant. But I think they also thought it was remote enough to keep me safe.

So imagine their surprise when, after the long, cold drive from Philadelphia, we pulled up in front of the Wells dormitory where I would spend the night and a student popped out the front door and said, brightly, “Great news! You get to stay in the coed dorm!” Some news! Hundreds of frozen miles from home and my parents only then learned about the January term visitors from Colgate and Hamilton (still men-only at that time, and Wells had an exchange with them). It was too late to turn around and go home. (It also didn’t occur to them that I had already lived my entire prior life in a ‘coed dorm’ with five brothers.) My mother was just horrified with the whole thing. But it was late and 22 degrees below zero. So the argument was brief. They conceded that I could go back to the residence hall but “just be very careful” —and for heaven’s sake, do not talk to any men!

They went off to the Aurora Inn. I immediately sought out the student lounge where the men were playing cards—Hearts—with the young women. It was sooo cool! I didn’t know how to play cards at all, but they welcomed me in, and soon I even won a few hands (or at least they let me). Now, you have to understand what this meant to me then. I was about as far from being one of the “cool” girls back then as you could imagine. My high school claim to fame was that I could sight translate Cicero’s Orations better and more accurately than anyone else on the east coast. (I have Latin trophies to prove it!). I stayed after school every day to help the nuns. I was in Glee Club. I did not own a pair of blue jeans, indeed, I was not allowed to wear trousers of any kind. I was kind of nerdy, I guess. I was also terrified of sleeping overnight in a college dormitory with these cool, sophisticated, worldly college women of Wells—the men didn’t bother me in the least— but the women who played Hearts with boys and even smoked cigarettes and went up to the Aurora Inn for “sour hour” on Fridays—that was scary…. and deeply seductive.

I don’t think I slept much that night. The next day, my parents were so relieved to see that I had actually lived through the ordeal of being in the coed dorm at Wells—when I told my mother I was coming here today to give this speech, and the issues you’ve faced this year, she said, well, just tell them that you survived the coed scene at Wells 35 years ago!—I went off to write the essay for the contest while they checked the place out. I spent most of my essay writing time daydreaming in the library, thinking of how cool it was to be in college…. almost!

That crystalline day on the edge of my mind’s eye remains bright because of the significance of that moment in my life, the moment when in some primal way the idea of a life apart from all that I once knew began to take root, the true meaning of the entrance to college.

So, in many ways, Wells was the beginning of my emerging adulthood. Life went on and I went to Trinity, happily so, but I occasionally wondered what it would have been like had I come to Wells. And then a wonderful thing happened. I met Lisa Ryerson—and suddenly, those very cool women of Wells were back in my life! Only Lisa Ryerson could get me out on a dance floor as she did last night. Very cool. President Ryerson is such a talented leader, someone who—I don’t mind telling you this, so that you will value her even more— would be a remarkable president in many other institutions, but she has chosen to be here for you, and she is your greatest advocate, chief cheerleader, and most able representative at all of the tables where she is sure that a chair for Wells is present.

But what about you, Women of Wells, Class of 2005? I met some of you last night, talked with some of you on the phone, I’ve read your newspaper and articles about you, and it seems to me that the Women of Wells in 2005 remain every inch the fabulous, cool, talented, opinionated, smart and hospitable women like those who captivated me 35 years ago. What journeys are you undertaking today, what tales will you tell years hence when you are invited to speak to some future graduating class?

Your commencement comes at a complicated time in world history, and we must spend a few minutes speaking of this today: a time of international threats and terrorism, the tragic legacy of September 11 still unfolding in our lives; a time when this nation makes war on another in the name of democracy, while, at home, civil liberties are curtailed in the name of security; a time of red states and blue states forcing fissures in our domestic tranquility; a time when social compacts and public policies and philosophies of life that we thought were long settled are called into question again: social security, equal opportunity, racial justice, women’s rights.

This is the world that you are entering today: challenging, difficult, dangerous. So there’s no time to lose in getting you on your way. The world needs your brains, your ethics, your compassion, your ambition to make a difference now more than ever. The world needs your activism, expressed so well in The Activist’s Toolkit symposium you organized this year and in all of the symposia on Activism in the Academy during the last four years.

But activism for what? Today I ask you to consider three large forces that are shaping this era in history, and how you will find within them the causes that will incite you to action throughout your lives: Globalism; Human Rights; Education. These are issues that will demand the best of your intellect, that will drill down through your layers of knowledge to the philosophy of living you acquired here at Wells.

Let’s start with globalism.

Earlier this week I was in Rome. As is often the case when I travel abroad, I was struck by two things: first, as in many countries, how short a distance it is between the airport and the first sighting of a McDonald’s. Second, how important it is to get out of the tourist zone and walk the neighborhoods of an international city, observing the rich tapestry of culture and language and tastes and habits that other citizens of our earth enjoy.

Globalism, of course, is the term for the universal adaptation to certain aspects of the dominant culture, frequently interpreted as American culture specifically, or western culture generally. McDonald’s is the icon of American culture and the specific example of globalism run rampant. Globalism explains (only in part!) the young Italian man I saw earlier this week on the Via Aurelia on a 90 degree day wearing a huge down vest with the North Face logo clearly displayed.

Shopping malls are another example of globalism: a news item this week indicated that China now has a shopping mall that is 3 times larger than the Mall of America in Minneapolis, which once claimed the title of world’s largest. China, formerly the icon of communism, where everyone wore the same outfit, has recently discovered the joy of shopping – and why not, since Chinese labor makes much of the clothing and other goods that are sold in American malls.

Certainly, arguments can be made that certain aspects of globalism have had very positive effects, aside from being able to find a cheeseburger in Beijing. Globalism has spurred economic development and improved economic opportunities for millions of people around the world. But the cost of that significant benefit is a widening global chasm between the First and Third Worlds. Because it is perceived as forcing the dominant culture—the American culture –on all people, exalting material gain as the most important value, globalism has become a force for profound social conflict, and a lightening rod for extremists who use the materialism of the West and poverty of the Third World as flashpoints for hatred and terrorism. Ironically, even as some extremists call globalism an American plot to dominate the world, political theorists and media pundits are lamenting the decline of nation states as the spread of technology makes it possible for individuals to associate around causes without regard for national boundaries, constitutions or legal systems. Hence, the problem of terrorism as a global force that no nation can control. (Religion is also a profoundly important global force today, a topic too big to consider this morning except in passing.)

But what does the struggle over globalism mean for you? Between the extreme points of view on globalism—the one that says there is nothing but good to come from American hegemony, and the other that views American values as pure evil—lies the large zone where you will be most likely to encounter the moral dilemmas, issues for investigation, and the causes that will kindle your passion. This is the landscape where women and families spend a good part of their days as globalism affects food, clothing, shelter and local economies.

An example of one woman’s response to globalism is the story of Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement in Africa. She is the first African woman ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 2004 for her work in sustainable development in Africa. This is her description, in her Nobel Lecture, of one kind of consequence of globalization in Africa: “Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families…The women we worked with recounted that unlike in the past, they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of their immediate environment as well as the introduction of commercial farming, which replaced the growing of household food crops. But international trade controlled the price of the exports from these small-scale farmers and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed. I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.”

Ms. Maathai describes the problem in simple terms: women can no longer feed their families because commercialism replaced their family farms and then ruined the land. But she didn’t stop there. She went on to organize a movement to repair the land. She then challenged corporations and governments to take action in the name of justice: “…industry and global institutions must appreciate that ensuring economic justice, equity and ecological integrity are of greater value than profits at any cost. The extreme global inequities and prevailing consumption patterns continue at the expense of the environment and peaceful co-existence. The choice is ours.”

The choice is now yours, Women of Wells. During your years at Wells College, you have been introduced to the complicated dimensions of globalism in some very clear and direct ways. Many of you have studied abroad, all of you have studied other languages and cultures. Beyond that, through all of your coursework, you have begun to shape your philosophy of life, your world view, your political perspective and social values. What kind of movement will you undertake in response to the challenges of globalism? You may never do something as large as the Green Belt Movement—though you have the talent to do so if the opportunity arises—but your personal philosophy on the topic of globalism will have a profound influence on your choice of work, your choices about how to spend money and acquire goods, how you will spend your volunteer time, the charitable gifts you will make, and most importantly, how you will educate your children.

As Ms. Maathai summarized so well, the topic of human rights is another dimension in the globalism debate that adds immense complexity to our understanding of the issues. In some parts of the world, notions of equality for women and justice for all are viewed as simply more American exports designed to undermine other cultures. Let me frame the issue illustratively, again.

Just last week, on May 16, the Parliament of the country of Kuwait voted to give women full political rights, including the right to vote as well as the right to stand for election in parliamentary as well as municipal elections.

How amazing, you might say to yourself, in this day and age! But remember, it was only in your grandmother’s lifetimes that women in this nation won the right to vote.

Now, if you really want to find out the significance of the Kuwaiti action in light of the issues I’m citing today, go to the story on BBC.com where it invites reader reaction to the news, and you will read about all of the issues I’ve mentioned thus far: while many people hail this move as a great advance for women’s rights everywhere, a few decry it as a product of globalization, particularly, a suspicion that “freedom and democracy” are U.S. exports, like cheeseburgers, and deliberately intended to undermine the sanctity of the Islamic Law that governs Kuwait and other nations. Some of the writers point out that there’s nothing in Islamic Law or the Koran that would forbid women’s right to vote, and indeed, some writers say that women are treated equally in the Koran, that instead, it’s the conservative members of the Kuwaiti Parliament who are using religion to maintain power. Sound familiar?

Knowing a little something about all the glass ceilings that women still face in this country, I’d tell the globalism conspiracy theorists to stick with the cheeseburger evidence. We’re a long way from declaring victory in the women’s revolution in this nation; other nations have managed to elect women presidents and prime ministers while, in the United States, women in Congress and women governors remain rare and remarkable.

The world and this nation have a long way to go on the human rights, civil rights and women’s rights agendae. Our preoccupation with security since September 11 has pushed that agenda to the margins. Moreover, in some places, the traditional role of religious leaders on human rights and civil rights issues has been muted. So, for example, the Catholic Church has an immensely strong track record in favor of economic justice for all, against the death penalty, against the war in Iraq, in favor of the rights of immigrants even if undocumented—but all of these so-called “liberal” positions rooted in Gospel social justice teachings (which are part of the Church’s teachings on the dignity of life) have become obscured in current politics. In the same way, the once-loud and staunch voices of faith leaders that led the civil rights movement in this nation are relatively silent as the hard-won laws and policies of the 1960’s are now reconsidered and recast as somehow unjust (e.g., affirmative action), rather than tools of justice.

My friends in the Wells Class of 2005: these causes must now become your causes as well. With the power of your Wells education and your passion for activism to achieve justice, you will be in positions in corporations and classrooms and the public square to speak out on behalf of civil rights, women’s rights, human rights, social justice. You must never be silent when the evidence of injustice cries out for an advocate, a voice, a champion.

Education is the most likely place where your voice will be heard consistently.

In Reading Lolita in Teheran (2004: Random House), the author Azar Nafisi describes the unraveling of a society in the Iranian revolution. Women who once walked freely in contemporary clothing suddenly are forced to cover-up completely, and morality squads roam the streets looking for stray hairs and nailpolish. Universities become shells of their former selves as academic freedom retrenches under the weight of the regime’s restrictions on what may be taught and said and written. A government official who is blind becomes the censor of theatre and television, with an aide dictating the scenes to him in advance screenings so that he can decide what the public may or may not see. (See pp. 24-25) The blind censor extinguishes the intellectual lights of the society one by one, imposing his judgment on what others may see and know and interpret for themselves, obscuring the light that is essential for discovering Truth.

But Truth must prevail for human rights, justice and peace to flourish. Truth is the business of education. Our task as educated women, citizens and leaders of the world is to spread the truth, to unmask the blind censors wherever they exist, to shine our light through the darkness to give hope to people who have so little.

Wangari Maathai provides an example of the transformative power of education. In her Nobel Laureate Lecture, she relates the reluctance of the women she worked with to engage with the issues as a lack of awareness, a lack of education. So, she set about addressing that problem, too. In her words: “We developed a citizen education program, during which people identify their problems, the causes and possible solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society. …In the process, the participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They realize their hidden potential and are empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.”

All of us start our lives with that lack of awareness, that belief that someone else should care for us. Education is the process through which we become empowered to take charge of our own lives, and to help others to do the same. Those of us blessed with good parenting know that our parents were and are our first and best teachers. I realized, as I was preparing this talk, that my parents’ choice to bring me to Wells on that cold winter weekend so long ago was the ultimate expression of their desire for me to advance in my education, in ways they were unable to in their own education, and I might not be here today on this platform were it not for their willingness to make that journey.

The gift of education makes us accountable for the use of this gift for the benefit of future generations. Millions of children in this nation and around the world do not have the parenting, the encouragement, the care, the access to education that we have had. We must make it our business to improve their educational opportunities as a small measure of repayment for the large gifts we have received.

We have particular care for the education of women and girls. Wells College, like Trinity, like scores of similar institutions, was founded to create educational opportunities for women who were once denied such opportunities. Today, for many women, universities are the land of opportunity, and the broad acceptance of coeducation as normative has changed the landscape of higher education. As a result, our historic women’s colleges have faced the need to think about the populations we serve, and how we can continue to make these tremendous educational opportunities available to future generations.

Wells has made a choice, and, next fall, some new students with new characteristics will have the opportunity to reap these benefits, too. If those new students were Chinese or African or Vietnamese or Peruvian, I suspect they would be welcomed to this campus with great joy. So why would new students who seek the opportunity of this education be welcomed with any less enthusiasm simply because they are male?

Oh, yes, I know all of the answers—remember that, I, too, am the product of and lead a women’s college that has experienced substantial change. But for that very reason, I think I have some credentials to offer this thought: what makes us women’s colleges today is not the absence of men, but the conviction of the absolute necessity of women’s education and advancement.

The success of women’s colleges in the 19th and 20th centuries made coeducation possible; we showed women’s power and brilliance, and the male institutions took note and opened their doors. So, ironically, coeducation was a success story for women’s colleges.

But coeducation also made it necessary for women’s colleges to change, because our raison d’etre, women’s exclusion from higher education, was gone. All of us, in various ways appropriate for our geography and resources and capacity, have made adaptations to ensure that we can continue to be places of great educational opportunity for women. Adaptive strategies are essential to ensure that women’s education and advancement remains a mainstream mission in higher education, not relegated to some exotic margin where only the curious wander.

The change in our genre has been going on for decades. Trinity’s adaptation is illustrative. We were once were very small, 95% white, all women, Catholic, residential, traditional. Today we are much larger and significantly more diverse, with 85% of our students representing Black, Hispanic and Asian populations, and more than 90% on serious financial aid, 75% over the age of 25, largely commuters. We also educate men in many of our programs. But we remain deeply, profoundly committed to the education and advancement of women.

Some of our constituents truly hated the changes that came to Trinity, said we should have ‘gone coed’ or even closed, rather than educate this new population. But for Trinity, our transformation ensured the fulfillment of our mission in a way that has been enormously life-giving for our students and our institution, so that we can continue to offer our educational gifts to many future generations. We have come to understand our mission is lived in how we educate and what we teach, and that who our students are should be largely determined by the students themselves if they wish to partake of this great educational opportunity. We have come to understand mission not as a set of institutional features, but as an agenda for action that is only complete in the lives of our graduates.

Women’s colleges will continue to be sources of great educational opportunity for women in the future even as those opportunities will be available to increasingly large and diverse populations of students, including many more older students, many more students of color, students from broader social class backgrounds, and including men. The women’s college of the 21st century will not be known as a place apart, a place mostly known among the public for what it lacks or who it excludes. Rather, the women’s college of the 21st century will be known for its vitality, what we teach and do pro-actively, affirmatively, educating leaders for the world, people—male as well as female—who will be advocates for the issues of greatest importance to women, children and families, because those are the issues that will make the peace we all desire so very much. We will continue to educate leaders who will make good, ethical choices among the consequences and benefits of globalism, who will be strong voices for human rights, who will advance the cause of universal education well beyond our reach today. Let us be known by the ways in which our graduates fulfill our mission in the work of their lives.

We graduates of women’s colleges owe it to all of our alma maters to set them free, as your parents set you free on the day they brought you here, as mine did so long ago. We owe it to them to be proud and supportive of their courageous and innovative adaptations that ensure their continuing presence as voices for women at the table of higher education. We owe it to our colleges to expect the right things of them: progressive intellectual engagement, activism on behalf of women’s education and advancement, leadership for justice and peace, pointing us toward that better world of our fondest hopes.

We owe it to the rising generations to let them experience alma mater in their own way appropriate for their times. We owe it to all who invested in us to ensure the vitality of this mission in the work of our lives, fulfilling our stewardship of alma mater’s gifts through the lives we touch and improve in the years to come.

So it’s time to begin, my friends in the Wells Class of 2005. The new generations of Wells are already looking to you, exemplars of all that this great college means in a world that needs you so very much.

May you light up the skies with the fire of your passion through the years. May your light be a sign of hope to all those who suffer in darkness. May your flame burn brightly as a hearth for your family, a beacon for your children, an illuminating source of inspiration for your colleagues and hope for your neighbors in all places on this small planet. May you return often to Wells for reunion and renewal. And may the friends sitting next to you today be your sisters through the years, sharing laughter in the morning and strength in the twilight, walking together on this great journey across the rugged, challenging and beautiful terrain of your lives.


Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu

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