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Convocation 2005 Address
Joanne V. Creighton, President

  President Creighton
Joanne V. Creighton, President
(photo by Fred LeBlanc)

September 7, 2005

I’m pleased to add my welcome to everyone at this, the formal opening of the 169th year of this venerable institution. Class of ’09 and all other new students, faculty, and staff: we are delighted to have you with us. Class of ‘06, seniors at last, congratulations! It would be an understatement to say you are in high spirits.

Each year, as we begin anew, the buzz and energy of the community are palpable (maybe even deafening). We can’t help but feel refreshed and inspired by the privilege of being part of this extraordinary institution.

Our privilege is especially evident in light of the terrible devastation of Katrina along with the impending anniversary of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks. Our hearts go out to all who have lost so much in these tragedies. I am so relieved and pleased to report that all of our own students from the Gulf region are accounted for, although sadly some of their families have suffered considerable property loss. The College has joined with other colleges and higher ed associations in reaching out to New Orleans-based colleges and universities, and we’ve already enrolled some visiting students; this effort is ongoing under the leadership of Jane Brown and Lee Bowie. A number of faculty and staff have generously offered housing. CAUSE, the student-run community service organization, advised by Anita MacGovern, is coordinating campus-based fundraising and other initiatives to lend a helping hand. We’ll keep our Web site updated on these efforts.

In such a troubled world, this College seems even more a haven and a place of hopefulness. Indeed, the very existence of this College – improbable from the start – is worthy of celebration. Who would think that an impoverished female educator from western Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century would have had the vision and savvy to implement such a big idea and that this idea would continue to have such resonance generation after generation on into the present, despite the odds against it.

That big idea is that women, not just men, should be educated to the highest standard of academic excellence, and that they should make a positive difference in the world. This was a radical idea at the time. Then and throughout human history, higher education for women and leadership by women had been a rarity, the exception rather than the rule.

To be sure, tremendous progress has been made in women’s education in the past 169 years. Instead of being excluded from educational opportunity, women are now the majority of matriculants in this country. Indeed, one might be lulled into thinking that all the battles have been won, that women are now on an equal footing with men in the world. If you think that, you might also think that this College, therefore, should declare victory for women’s education and go coed.

Do you think that? Neither do I! Now, more than ever, the world needs Mount Holyoke College – the longest standing women’s college in the world – to advocate for women’s education and advancement. It is distressing to consider how slowly even basic education is reaching all the women of the world. Indeed, some of you are from countries where opportunities for many women remain bleak. So too do many of you Frances Perkins students know firsthand that women in this country without a college degree struggle against enormous odds.

And consider as well how slowly women’s leadership is infiltrating the higher reaches of power and influence. Women account for over 45% of America’s workforce and for less than 8% of its top managers. And those female managers make only 72% of what their male counterparts earn. Only 2 women have ever served on the U.S. Supreme Court and only one remains. Only 14 of 100 senators are women. In fact, it is embarrassing that the U.S. ranks 60th out of 180 countries in terms of women’s representation on national legislatures or parliaments.

Taking the long view of women through the millennia of history, then, you could say that women’s education is still in its infancy and women’s leadership is the world’s most underused natural resource.

Not so at Mount Holyoke, though. Here we draw inspiration from Mary Lyon who believed in the transformative power of education and the transformative power of women to engage with men in what she called the “great work of renovating the world.” She urged her students: “Go where no one else will go. Do what no one else will do,” and successive generations of graduates heeded her call, becoming pioneers in a number of fields and founding schools and colleges across this country and in Canada, Argentina, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Armenia, Persia, India, China, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Africa, and serving as president or principal of over a hundred others. Several of the schools they founded served people excluded from traditional educational systems: Native Americans, African Americans, the blind, the deaf, the educationally impaired.

On this campus we celebrate women’s leadership and achievement and even name buildings after women – Mary Lyon, Mary Woolley, Elizabeth Mead, Emma Carr, Lydia Shattuck, Cornelia Clapp, Ruth MacGregor, Harriet Newhall, and others are memorialized in bricks and mortar. In the world at large, in contrast, women’s contributions are much more invisible and uncelebrated. And, more to the point, the continuing deprivation of women in many parts of the world not only to education but to basic human dignity remains a disgrace.

From the very beginning, this College has stood as a beacon for women and has had influence well beyond its small size. You, the students here now, are standing in a long line of women who have accomplished amazing things. So too will you.

That may seem totally improbable to you. Right now, you are probably focused on the immediate tasks at hand: settling into your room, getting online, starting your classes, as well you should. Furthermore, that larger world may seem pretty overwhelming: terrorism, natural catastrophes, poverty, war, geopolitical and global forces of daunting complexity. You may feel very small and very limited in what you can do.

While some of you may have a clear idea of the path you are on and the role you would like to play, some of you may not. And that’s fine, that’s normal. Your life plan will not come full blown, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It will gradually take shape and evolve over the years. But this we know: you will come back again and again for inspiration to your time at this College, and it will not let you down.

What you can do now is open yourself up to possibility; try things, purposefully engage in your studies and the life of this College. Education is the process of becoming, and there’s no better place to stretch and grow than at this College.

And, the magical thing about a fine liberal arts education is that while you are studying ancient Greek or philosophy or chemistry or political science, you are all the while developing the skills, the knowledge, and the habits of mind that will help to prepare you for life in the complex world that is your inheritance.

Furthermore, while this campus may appear bucolic and removed, it is, in fact, a microcosm of the world with people of different races, ethnicities, religions, ages, cultural experiences, political views, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, countries of birth, and more. We seek out this diversity because we believe that a diverse community offers tremendous opportunities for learning and enrichment. But, like everything else at this College, to get the most out of it, you need to actively engage with it.

Seek out people who may at first seem different from you. Help us to achieve the goals articulated in the final report of the Diverse Community Commission coming out this fall. Help us to be a place that supports and celebrates the uniqueness of each of our members. Help us to model the world as we want it to be.

And connect to that world too. Use the new Center for Global Initiatives to plan study and work abroad experiences. Use the Weissman Center and the Center for the Environment to hone your leadership skills and to engage with important public issues. Enjoy athletics – including a new intramural program, SGA, clubs, cultural houses, and more.

And while you are fully engaged with the Mount Holyoke of the present, help us to plan the College of the future. We’ve made good progress over the summer in the design of the proposed new residence hall. Now we’re eager for your advice and criticism because you, unlike us, know firsthand what it’s like to live out there in the residential precincts. With the help of the SGA, we’ll hold an open forum early in the semester to hear from you. If this project is approved by the board, the lucky class of '09 will get a chance to live in this splendid new building, which we hope to open in the fall of '08. But the rest of you will not be excluded. This is your campus forever and you will partake of its magic over and over again as returning alumnae in the years ahead.

Finally, let me mention that we’ll continue the new tradition begun last year of Community Breakfasts: the first is Thursday, September 22 at 8 am in Blanchard. Everyone is invited. Do roll out of bed and join us. So too will I continue to hold open office hours in Blanchard and get around to the dorms for teas. Stop by. I hope to see many of you there as well as out and about around the campus, starting at the Community Picnic immediately following this event.

It’s terrific to see everyone here and ready to go. On behalf of all of us in the administration, best wishes to all of you for a most productive and fulfilling year.

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Copyright © 2006 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on June 13, 2006.