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Inaugural Address

Photo of Sonya Stephens at the podium during her Inauguration

Thank you all.

Chair of the Board of Trustees Barbara Baumann, President of the Alumnae Association Maria Mossaides, current former trustees, members of the Board of Directors of the Association, former Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella, former chairs of the Board of Trustees and presidents of the Association, Mount Holyoke’s extraordinary alumnae, faculty, staff and students, distinguished guests and colleagues from around the nation and the world, my family and my friends.

It is with deep gratitude for your support, and an admiration for, and in celebration of all that Mount Holyoke is, that I stand before you today and accept these symbols of office and this charge, cognizant of the responsibilities that they represent, and of the honor it is to be in the service of this remarkable institution and its members. I am so grateful for your presence today.

As you have already heard, there are many here who have brought me to this moment and to this place, both literally and figuratively. My parents, who are sitting just over here, have always wondered, I think, quite what was coming next (laughter). You probably still are (laughter). And yet, they have been unrelenting in their love for and their belief in me.

The friends from high school, college and every other phase of my life, from the U.K. to France, from Canada and the U.S., are here in person or in spirit. Among those here today are individuals, as again you have heard, who played a part in admitting me to college at 17, who have seen me through my undergraduate and graduate experiences, who are or who have been departmental colleagues and fellow French scholars and “dix-neuviémistes.” There are people here who brought me to America.

There are some in my thoughts who could not be present, who are no longer with us, and whose influence remains, whose voice I sometimes hear echoed in my own. And then there is this extraordinary community that is Mount Holyoke. An extraordinary community of alumnae, faculty, staff and students, Five College colleagues and representatives of the South Hadley community.

Last and very much not least, there is my family. My remarkable menfolk (laughter). My husband, Jon, and my sons. Louis, streaming this in a residence hall in his second week of college, 3,336 miles away (laughter) — if he didn’t get a better offer (laughter) — and Oscar. Your seemingly endless support and love for me and your respect for this work that takes me away from you so often are testimony every day to what equality for women, equality for all truly looks like.

It is, then, the power and generosity of individuals and communities at every stage in my life that has lit the path and sustained my effort and that has always shaped my understanding and commitments. And that is especially true here at Mount Holyoke, binding me to you and to the bricks and mortar, the leaded lights, the rolling landscapes, to the clanking radiators and the core values of this college that I have come to love and now to lead.

It is for a reason that we talk of this place at home. What makes this home so very special is the value that we place on the exceptional differences within it and the opportunity to be in community with each other, continually learning to be better. This is what is transformative. We discover who we are in places that expose us to difference.

For me, that first and enduring moment of discovery was in France and in French.

I was always what they call an “integratively motivated language learner,” committed to a language because it enabled me to connect with people and their experience first and foremost, and then to the literature and culture as a expression of these. I didn’t just want to learn French. What I really wanted from first contact, and then purposefully from adolescence, was to be French (laughter).

The discovery of other places, other languages, other ways of seeing and reading enabled me to grow in my ways of thinking and in my sense of self. There was, in the desire to be changed by the learning and the experience, both a critical moment and a critical conception of what it means to fully embrace the unknown, to lose the self in a quest for understanding of, and communication with, an other. Then after long immersion to bring the fullest, retrospective and active reading to every experience, to every encounter.

In this pursuit of understanding, everything is a linguistic puzzle, a cultural index, a dictionary of signs and images. These name or represent the objects and the systems that we read in the complexities of a culture we enter and unravel. It is this cultural literacy that facilitates the social processes and make more inclusive and meaningful the environments in which we live and work in our diverse and transnational communities, and especially here at Mount Holyoke. As Gaby Hinsliff described it in an article just last week, speaking another language is first and foremost “a gesture of empathy and respect,” “a fundamental willingness to put oneself out in order to put someone else at ease. Speaking foreign languages is about meeting people halfway, building bridges and accepting differences.” And underpinning all of this, the very structures of a language and the expressions of a culture experienced comparatively, “shed light on a different way of thinking.”

And so when I began to study French poetry, what captivated me after years of studying grammar, as sensemaking, was the notion of poetic “ungrammaticality,” the encoded unreadability of the text, its ambiguity, and the ways in which as readers we try to impose order or meaning, gaining access to significance only through retroactive or hermeneutic reading. Such work, the work of sensemaking, enables us to “start seeing the structures that form a cultural reality.”

In August 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an article in The Atlantic entitled “Acting French,” where he describes his own experience of discovery at Middlebury’s French language school, a place, where he says, his “mouth felt alien and his ear slightly off,” perhaps especially in the recitation of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Lamartine. And a place where his past educational experiences and his failures were brought into sharp relief by the better preparation and greater social capital of others despite a separate and uniquely black culture of achievement. One which he says, and I quote, “failed to make him into a high-achieving student,” but it “succeeded at making him into a writer.”

Of his experience of learning French that summer he writes, “I was a boy haunted by questions. Why do the lilies close at night? Why does my father always say ‘I can dig it’? And who really killed the dinosaurs? And why is my life so unlike everything I see on TV? That feeling — the not knowing, the longing for knowing and the eventual answer is love and youth to me. In my long voyage through the sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment,” he said, “when I thought I might survive the sea.“

Coates recounts how words of encouragement from a mentor, a quotation from French literature remain locked, inaccessible to him. And seeking explanation because it mattered to know, he received not only the advice, but, he said, he “understood something about the function of language,” and “why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important.” Learning French for Ta-Nehisi Coates was a way of rebooting his imagination, of living in wonder, enjoying confusion, “not understanding, and reaching at various things,” he said.

Like Coates, the not knowing and the longing for knowing our love and youth for me. And my first sighting of land was a form of discovery that entailed a willingness, not just across the Channel and then Europe and the Atlantic, but always to seek new waters in the quest for the as-yet-unknown. A quest, despite the deep challenge of different canons and why they exist, for an understanding of the world and its cultures, for an understanding of difference more personal, more real, and more lasting than any Entente Cordiale.

In a recent book “Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm,” Christian Madsbjerg makes a compelling case for the activity of the title. He says, it is “an ancient practice of cultural inquiry. With sensemaking,” he argues, “we use human intelligence to develop a sensitivity toward meaningful differences — what matters to other people as well as ourselves.” While my story and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s narrative about language acquisition and cultural curiosity at Middlebury, describe a certain point of access to discovery and to self-discovery and some convergence, what they underscore is the way that the quest for understanding and the pursuit of knowledge across disciplines calls upon every part of our humanity.

This quest is at the heart of the liberal arts from Socrates and Cicero to the present, and what guides a Mount Holyoke education in the 21st century, whatever the disciplinary prisms through which it is experienced. The special opportunity afforded by the liberal arts is that of intensive inquiry and exchange across a diverse spheres of knowledge, and as Mark William Roche has argued, “concerning the highest of human values.” Exchange that happens with peers and faculty invested with each other in this pursuit. In this place of learning, where intellectual challenge is in all that we do, where pursuing ideas and collaboration is a lifestyle, we choose inquiry and discovery over solutionism. We know the value of a liberal arts college and of this one in particular. We know that what happens here is extraordinary and transformative. We know that the attributes of a liberal education — creativity, critical thinking, decision-making, logical and persuasive argumentation, communication skills, and yes, problem-solving too —  are core to what we do, to all that we do and that a big part of that education is preparation for broader social engagement and action.

Most importantly, the ways in which we engage in this inquiry and the disciplines of the liberal arts investigate what makes us human, and the institutions, structures and systems that might inhibit or support the fullest expression and realization of our humanity and of other life forms on our planet. As Ella T. Grasso, Mount Holyoke class of 1940 and the 83rd governor of Connecticut said when she addressed the graduating class in 1975, “This is the point of your education: to place human interests and ideals at the heart of your existence, to see, to recognize, to understand. That is the spirit of humanism.”

In a deeply disturbing and important work, “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” Pankaj Mishra offers a bleak diagnosis of our current era of renewed nationalism, hatred of invented enemies, racial violence and misogyny.

He concludes that “It has become,” this is a quotation, “It has become impossible to obscure or deny the great chasm, first explored by Rousseau, between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality. The contradictions and costs of a minority’s progress, long suppressed by historical revisionism, blustery denial and aggressive equivocation, have become visible on a planetary scale. They encourage the suspicion that the present order is built upon force and fraud; they incite a broader and more apocalyptic mood than we have ever witnessed before.”

Seeking to explain the origins of this, probing emotions and an astonishing breadth of ideas, offering an extensive bibliographic essay to bring his readers to fuller understanding and citing a list of thought partners in the acknowledgments because, he says, “There are just too many political contacts, intellectual idioms and mentalities in this book, for any reader to master on their own,” Mishra’s book stands as a sort of journey through the liberal arts and as a “cri de cœur” for the kind of sensemaking that we now urgently need. What he describes as “some truly transformative thinking about both the self and the world.” This is at the heart of our work here.

It is in this context then that we must shape a future for Mount Holyoke and the common good to continue to prepare individuals for such transformative thinking, individuals who will live up to the expectations of the first black major party candidate for the U.S. presidency, former U.S. representative and one-time Mount Holyoke faculty member, Shirley Chisholm. That they will, and I quote her, “assure that the goals of our government, of our nation, are the purest, the most moral, the most democratic and the most noble. Let us decide right now,” she said, “to ignite our inner fires of commitment, idealism and determination. In this moment and in this place, this is what we must do. We must start here to shape and sustain the kinds of communities and the social order that we want to see to ensure that our goals are the purest, most moral, most democratic and the most noble” shaped by idealism, wrought by determination.

And so as we press on with the priorities already outlined in the Plan for 2021, with more vigor, yet-higher standards and expectations, and with renewed commitment, vision and energy, there are some new initiatives that recommend themselves as imperative and urgent.

First, we will reassert the relevance and power of a Mount Holyoke education and of a women’s college that is the most inclusive. A women’s college that is bold and expansive in its understanding of its mission and of gender itself, a college that fully embraces the exploration of identity and at which individuals can discover and define themselves away from dominant cultural norms. This, it seems to me was at the heart of what Adrienne Rich, in another time and at another women’s college, described as “the soul of a women’s college.”

We will also center inclusivity in the fullest way, challenging inequity, acknowledging prior histories of exclusion and past wrongs, and building upon decades of student resistance and protest, as well as on work here by those students, by faculty and staff who have gone before us, and those engaged in that work here and now. We will together determine and in short order, the best way to further institutionalize these efforts, visibly and programmatically with deep collaboration across the existing centers and departments, with the cultural houses and other programs on campus and in higher education more broadly, in order to work here and every day toward an anti-racist, anti-discriminatory and equitable community on campus, and to promote such a world beyond it. Only by centering these efforts in this way, by resourcing them, and most importantly by continuing the individual learning to which I, and we must all, commit, can we realize this vision.

We will continue to build an inclusive administration, staff and faculty and to reimagine, as we have always done, a curriculum that looks critically forward as well as to the past, and that connects academic discipline with creativity and existential inquiry, that links self-discovery and intellectual pursuits both to experiential opportunities and to that higher purpose.

In line with these commitments and in this moment of deep divisions, this age of anger, we will launch a new public lecture series, one that promotes conversations across ideological difference, bringing together panels of experts of every political stripe to engage with each other and with us, and to model within our community what freedom of thought and speech and learning from difference can look like when it is done with courage, compassion and with skillful care.

To respond to the faculty’s express desire to teach together across disciplines and in the true spirit of contemporary learning and transformative thinking, we will create opportunities for team-taught courses that tackle the most pressing and salient issues of our time, and in so doing, create for students a new sophomore experience that develops the capacities we associate with liberal learning, those most needed for a better world.

And because this work needs to be life- and planet-sustaining, we will push forward to make the necessary investments here on campus in renewable energy and energy efficiency. We will promote local and global food justice and sustainability. And we will invest in further opportunities for environmental education across the curriculum and through our campus Living Laboratory and the Miller Worley Center for the Environment.

This work is our work. It is the sensemaking work of our era and our commitment to continued human endeavor and change. The moment demands nothing less, for as Naomi Barry-Pérez, director of the Civil Rights Center in the U.S. Department of Labor and class of 1996, wrote to me this week, “This is our place of growth and respect and freedom.” This is our commitment in and to Mount Holyoke.

Whether we approached that work as a scientist or a sculptor, through critical social thought or creative writing, through gender studies or geography, or through the study of languages, literature and culture, we are bound together in the longing for learning in the quest for Emerson’s “new and” — still — “unapproachable America” and world, in this commitment to the highest purpose of Mount Holyoke. A purpose that caused that America and that world forward.

This education is not a luxury. It is a need. Like language and poetry and the worlds and communities and meanings they draw us into, it is the way we discover empathy and forget ourselves. The way we forge our relationships, a collective future and a new America. As Audre Lorde explains, “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives, has direct bearing upon the product which we live and upon the changes that we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are — until the poem — nameless and formless.”

This work of ideas is illumination itself. And my hope for and commitment to the future of Mount Holyoke is that here we will pursue and name our ideas and our passions, and that here, within a light that realizes our magic, we will give form to the lives and to the vision that in their turn will shape that future.

Thank you.