Convocation 2019 Welcome Address

President Sonya Stephens delivers the 2019 Convocation Welcome

Good morning, everyone! Welcome to Convocation 2019!

This is the moment when we officially welcome to our community the class of 2023, our new transfer students, all Frances Perkins scholars, the graduate student — some of them pursuing their second degree at Mount Holyoke — and all of the students visiting Mount Holyoke this year from another college or university.

It is also such a pleasure to welcome home returning students. Welcome back, class of 2022, class of 2021, and the seniors, the Lyons, class of 2020!

And to acknowledge the faculty, in their own colorful regalia, here to celebrate you and this new beginning — thank you! Can we also offer a special welcome to the new faculty joining Mount Holyoke this year?

And our extraordinary staff, joining us in turquoise  T-shirts or Mount Holyoke baseball caps — or, less visibly, hard at work somewhere else on campus — thank you! 

We — TOGETHER — are Mount Holyoke! And we’ve been busily preparing for your return and your arrival.

Convocation and Belonging

Convocation, this assembly of our community, is more than a spirited opening of the school year, it is a celebration of our collective belonging, and of this community’s renewal. This gathering is representative of the many perspectives and voices, of the diverse cultures and identities, and the disciplinary breadth that Mount Holyoke is today, and of the opportunities for engagement and for learning that this school year will bring. It is a moment of connection, emotion and togetherness, as well as of collective support.1

Convocation is also a moment to celebrate affinities, including class-year identity expressed through this array of colors, and to loudly declare that affinity. And today, I am delighted to announce that we are adding a new class color and symbol to those you see around you today. The students who earn graduate degrees at Mount Holyoke through Professional and Graduate Education, or PaGE, will henceforth add teal, a color associated with optimism,  to this colorful display. To our glorious mix of green griffins, purple phoenixes, blue Lyons, red pegasi and yellow sphinxes, we will be adding the owl, a creature venerated for its focus, intuition and vision, and a perennial symbol of wisdom.2 Let’s hear it for the teal owls!

This sense of belonging, of mutual endeavor, is the foundation for all that you will do this year as an individual, and as a part of whatever groups you choose to affiliate with. And while this program- or class-year affinity is a beloved and important Mount Holyoke tradition — and Convocation perhaps its loudest expression — we all know that even in affinity, within and beyond class years, there is difference and divergence: Belonging is not the same thing as groupthink.  

A Mount Holyoke education and this community stands for independence of thought and action, for social and intellectual engagement, for democracies of thought and knowledge, the questioning of received ideas, creative energy and committed activism. And what helps us to negotiate difference of all kinds within this community is, in part the associational life that Mount Holyoke represents and makes possible, and in part a shared commitment to honor difference of every kind, and an unwavering respect for identity and individual dignity.

Inclusive Inquiry

There has been a lot of discussion recently about where we draw lines: Where, for example, does free speech become hate speech? Just today, writing in The Guardian, Nesrine Malik underscores that “freedom of speech is not a neutral, fixed concept, uncoloured by societal prejudice.” There isn’t, she says, “any consensus uninformed by biases.”3 Many colleges have been grappling with the question of how to assure both inclusion and inquiry on campus, and intensifying efforts to ensure that liberal learning inside and outside the classroom is marked by what Sigal Ben-Porath defines as “inclusive freedom, an approach … that takes into account the necessity of protecting free speech in order to protect democracy and the pursuit of knowledge while recognizing the equal necessity of making sure that all are included in the ensuing conversation,” thereby respecting both intellectual and dignitary freedoms.4

We each must do our part. With debate raging on all sides, we should privilege dialogue. As comments sections in national newspapers and on social media become more vitriolic, we each have a responsibility to pursue discussion in ways that respect the dignity and experience of others. Rather than emulating the angry position-taking that has become the norm all around us, I’m hoping that we might conscientiously model a different way, as a community of learners, a way that is no less exacting, but which allows us to listen for the things we can agree upon, to give resonance to those ideas, and to find new opportunities for growth in both dialogue and disagreement. 

As the climate for such exchange degrades around us, we are seeing more and more such calls to resist the divisiveness, and to adopt such a different way. In a recent op ed in The New York Times, Loretta Ross, a black feminist who has taught at Hampshire and is teaching at Smith College this year, invites us to join her by "calling in" rather than submitting to the “cancel” or “call-out culture” that, she argues, is “toxic,” to the “overwhelming temptation to clap back,” and to the “’clicktivist' culture that," she goes on, "provides anonymity for awful behavior.” Ross argues that the belief that any one of us has greater integrity, or is in unique possession of an unassailable truth or superior analysis, is to become (I quote),“the self-appointed guardian of political purity.” She continues:

"Call-outs make people fearful of being targeted. People avoid conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes, feeding the cannibalistic maw of the cancel culture. … We can change this culture. Calling in is simply a call-out done with love. … Calling-in engages in debates with words and actions of healing and restoration, and without the self-indulgence of drama. And we can make productive choices about the terms of the debate: Conflicts about coalition-building, supporting candidates or policies are a routine and desirable feature of a pluralistic democracy."5

Similarly, Gary Younge, editor at large for The Guardian, an honorary degree recipient and one of our Commencement speakers in 2019, wrote back in May, just a week before his visit to Mount Holyoke, that generosity is the “missing ingredient in today’s debates,” leading to “reflexive judgment and sweeping dismissal, a culture of online trolling, vindictiveness and insensitivity that leaves little space for growth, evolution, inquiry or nuance.” Younge also points to the silencing of many in this era of “unequivocal binaries [that] deny context and privilege certainty.” And, perhaps more importantly still for our educational community, he reminds us to make time and space for dialogue, that, in this effort to make sense of the world, we need to make time to think and talk through ideas. Younge challenges us to to be “OK with [people] not having a firm opinion on everything, with not knowing or being conflicted, or in the process of working something out.” 

“Many would like to talk about it” and “others would like to listen, he says, “but they can’t hear or make themselves heard for all the shouting.”6

Liberal Learning at Mount Holyoke

Mount Holyoke, as I said at the beginning, stands for social and intellectual engagement, for democracies of thought and knowledge, in a rich associational tradition that makes talking and listening, reading, arguing and writing, an intrinsic part of our making sense of things.

The heart of a liberal education is freedom and growth: freedom to explore and engage with ideas, the opportunity to grow in that process. As you know from all the milestones that you have passed to reach this point of achievement and maturity, the act of paying attention, the concentrated effort to follow an argument, to seek out flaws in it, as well as to understand the emotion and motivation behind the making of it, as well as to find some empathy with the person making it, is at the root of your own intellectual growth, and the freedom you now have to continue that process.

Paying attention in this way is just one of 10 characteristics identified by William Cronon as “The Goals of a Liberal Education” — he calls it “listening and hearing.” Each of the others is important too. But in paying careful attention to someone else’s ideas, in bringing rigor to our listening as well as to our work, and in empowering each other to speak, we can bring change to our experience here, if not immediately to the broader context in which we live and work.  We owe it to ourselves, to each other, to this community and to the world, to do this, to “have,” as Cronon puts it, “the intellectual range and emotional generosity to step outside [our] own experiences and prejudices, thereby opening [ourselves] to perspectives different from our own.”7

So, in your continuing pursuit of freedom and growth at Mount Holyoke, and especially in this moment when it seems that domestic and international conflict and challenges require more empathy and creative humanitarian solutions than ever, and when the world beyond these gates seems increasingly at odds with the values that we, as a community, espouse, let’s try to do as much as we can to truly to engage with the learning opportunities we have: to challenge “reflexive judgment and sweeping dismissal”  and make the space for the growth, generous encounters, respectful but exacting exchange, and intellectual nuance that this liberal education and this community invite. 

Welcome home, Mount Holyoke!

1 Turner, 1974, 45.

2 All faculty, staff, students and graduates of PaGE were surveyed, alongside representative from the undergraduate class boards from 2014 to 2022. Sixty percent of respondents are current students, 40% are graduates of the program. One third of respondents were/are current undergraduates, and two-thirds are graduate students. Those who are graduates of Mount Holyoke’s undergraduate program (double alums) made up 7.6% of the vote.

3Nesrine Malik, “The Myth of the Free Speech Crisis,” The Guardian, September 3, 2019. This is an edited extract from her new book, "We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent," (W & N, forthcoming on September 5).

4 See the special report commissioned by Williams College president Maud Mandel and made available in June 2019. The examples cited here are drawn from the “Philosophical Context” on the second page of the report which has no page numbers. See also Sigal Ben-Porath, "Free Speech on Campus" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

5  Loretta Ross, “I’m a Black Feminist. I think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic.” New York Times, August 17, 2019.

6 Gary Younge, “The missing ingredient in today’s debates? Generosity.” The Guardian, Saturday 11 May, 2019.

7 William Cronon, “‘Only Connect…’ The Goals of a Liberal Education.”