Convocation 2009

Convocation Address
Joanne V. Creighton
September 9, 2009

It’s wonderful to see you all here for the formal opening of the 173rd year of this venerable College. Welcome new faculty, staff, and students, including the class of 2013. And welcome back all you oldies as well, including the classes of 2012 and 2011. And finally, let me address the awesome class of 2010. You are beginning your final year at Mount Holyoke--and so am I. Like you, I am “graduating” this year, only I am apparently a much slower learner than all of you. It will take me 14-and-a half years to complete my Mount Holyoke education. But it’s been great: I’ve learned a lot. I hope the same is true for you.

In fact, Mount Holyoke is by far the most inspirational among the seven campuses I’ve lived on as a student, or faculty member, or administrator--or other institutions I’ve known, for that matter.

If I had to explain why that’s true, I’d start with the sense of place. Those of us who live and work here know that this beautiful campus infuses and enriches our experience every day. In fact, I just heard yesterday that one of our staff members, when asked about where she works, says: “I work in a castle in the middle of a park.” And so do I. Walking around the park as I do each morning with my husband Tom and first dog Maisie, I’ve become deeply familiar with its highways and byways. We regularly encounter coffee-carrying, early class takers (there are some, you nocturnals may be surprised to learn). We also see the quirky permanent residents--such as the goose I call Big White who fearlessly protects his duck family on Prospect Lawn. Beware: this bird will try to nip you in the butt! (I speak from experience.) The elusive, solitary heron, on the other hand, thrills us with an occasional sighting. I know the names and sniffing proclivities of all the lake-circling doggie regulars. No building needing repair, nor tree under beaver threat escapes my concern. I obsess on whether newly planted trees are taking root and how construction projects are going. Taking in imposing turrets and beautifully crafted architectural detail, I marvel at how this campus, accreted over time and, to be sure, somewhat eclectic in style, nonetheless absorbs and harmonizes even the most egregious examples of maladroit design (dare I mention Torrey or Buckland?). The whole is at once so alluring, so stabilizing, so Mount Holyoke. Altogether, I find it psychologically grounding to live on these beautiful grounds and I would bet you do too.

This place is the College and the College is this place. I hope you have claimed this place as your very own. I am proud of the fact that during my presidency we have made the most beautiful campus in the nation even more beautiful and functional. I can’t imagine more successful projects than the music and art buildings, the science center, the campus center, the admission center, the athletic center, the library--all so marvelously newly improved--and the new residence hall, which is new altogether. Each opens up beautifully to the surrounding landscape, bringing light, transparency, and vitality. Each creates inviting communal spaces. Indeed, each of these buildings adds to that memorable sense of place that is Mount Holyoke College.

But place is only part of the presence and essence and inspiration of this institution. As important as is place, it is trumped by purpose.

The College’s purpose, simply stated, is to educate women at the highest standard of academic excellence and to prepare them to make a difference in the world. Mary Lyon named the College after the nearby mountain (some would say hill), because she wanted her seminary to be enduring and famous like the mountain which was a major tourist attraction in the nineteenth century (second in popularity only to Niagara Falls). But, of course, the fame of mountain, has long been eclipsed by that of the College. It is the College that now brings distinction to this region. It is the College that is known and respected throughout the world.

And that is in large part because of the formative role in the history of women’s education of this, the proud oldest women’s college in the world, prototype for hundreds of others. Mary Lyon was a revolutionary who believed, heretically for her time, that women--especially women of modest means--mattered; that they would profit every bit as much as men from rigorous study in all fields; that education was of the whole person connecting mind, body, and spirit and connecting the individual to the larger human community; that the end of education is about making a difference in the world. “Great privilege brings great responsibility,” she insisted.

In the evolution of the institution over the years, especially through such visionary leaders as Mary Woolley and Elizabeth Mead, and great scholars such as Emma Carr, Lydia Shattuck, Cornelia Clapp, and others (many of whom are now memorialized in campus buildings) Mount Holyoke was shaped by a strong faculty of scholar-teachers and the great tradition of American liberal arts education. Indeed, these dual strains--excellence in the liberal arts, on the one hand, and purposeful engagement in the world, on the other--give Mount Holyoke's mission its distinctive resonance and power. It is what Mary Lyon called a “great intellectual and moral machine,” and its intellectual and moral power has been impelling women forward generation after generation since 1837. The record of accomplishment of intrepid Mount Holyoke women, particularly in founding schools and colleges and in pioneering work in science and other disciplines, is nothing short of astonishing. They set a high standard.

“If you jump in, you will ride very fast,” said Mary, and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing, riding very fast, over the past dozen years. We have been able to accomplish great things in advancing the fortunes of the College and the education of our students because an extraordinary and palpable esprit de corps draws us together in common cause. The College impels our love and loyalty, our allegiance and best effort: “Mount Holyoke, we pay thee devotion.”

Class of 2010, at convocation three years ago I told you then-newbies that you would be inducted into the history and tradition and essence of this College. I predicted that you would take great pride in being here and that you would come to appreciate what a privilege it is to have the opportunities afforded to you by this College.

I hope that this prediction has come true and that Mount Holyoke is embedded in your mind and heart. I hope you have honed here passion and purpose that will light up the rest of your life. You are extraordinary women who have been given an extraordinary opportunity to connect to a powerful legacy. Take full advantage of it. We have faith in you and in what great things you will attempt and will accomplish once you leave this special place.

But, that’s for a later time. There’s still another precious academic year to go before we say adieu. May it be a most energizing and productive time for us all. And, at the end of it, class of 2010, I look forward to “graduating” with you and to commencing with you on the next great ventures of our lives. My very best wishes to you all.

Related Link:

Convocation 2010: MHC Red-y for Action