Congratulations to our seniors, to our MA and PhD students and to our graduates in social work. It’s hard to see you go and I hope you will return to campus often. When you do, please look for me. I’ll be the lady in the Princess Leia costume arranging the colorful lawn furniture.
But let’s turn from our galactic ambitions to the vision and values upon which we were founded. During this year in which we are celebrating our 125th anniversary, I’ve enjoyed learning more about our earliest days. At our opening ceremony, Bryn Mawr’s first president, James Rhoads, spoke of Dr. Joseph Taylor, the quiet Quaker bachelor whose wealth built and endowed the College but who died before it opened. President Rhoads also commented upon the inaugural course of instruction, reminding his audience that its formation involved difficult choices prompted by “the duty to do well rather than to attempt to do much.” Johns Hopkins University president, Daniel Coit Gilman, prophesied that “the college which is established to-day is likely to be the leader among kindred establishments the whole world over. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic address was offered by the great American poet, James Russell Lowell, who spoke to many subjects. He acknowledged his personal ambivalence about women’s colleges but then noted that, “One of the great objects of the training of the present day should be to produce men and women who know the difference between literature and printed matter.”
Reflecting upon these inaugural remarks, I am struck by how aptly they apply to our present aspirations and challenges. Like our founders, we continue to make curricular choices, guided by “the duty to do well rather than to attempt to do much,” and this year’s faculty conversations focused chiefly upon this task. President Gilman’s prophecy about our international leadership has never been truer than during this anniversary year. We have just admitted a new class that will be 20% international students. We have started collaborative conversations with universities in Singapore, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, India and Hong Kong. James Russell Lowell’s distinction between literature and “printed matter” evokes our current lively discussions about how to navigate the data deluge of our digital age. The College that you graduates have graced during your years here is ever evolving, yet ever revolving around its core commitments.
In the midst of change much endures, such as our strong traditions. May Day was great fun this year. We were blessed with the weather and the good planning of our Traditions Mistresses. But much as I enjoy May Day, I enjoy even more the days following when you seniors walk (or run or dance) past my office on the 2nd floor of Taylor to tug the rope that rings the tower bell. Perhaps we should ring that bell to celebrate the concluding days of our 125th anniversary year. I am so pleased that all of you whom we will graduate today could participate in such a wealth of special events. It was wonderful to see you in the audiences as we welcomed authors and artists like Jhumpa Lahiri, Meredith Monk, and just last evening, Alvin Ailey, as we listened to inspiring speakers like Helene Gayle, the CEO of CARE, Eric Maskin, Nobel Laureate in Economics, and Dr. Regina Benjamin, the US Surgeon General. It was fun to watch you join our collaboration with the Mural Arts Program to create the stunning public art entitled “Pioneering Women A-Z” that was unveiled in west Philly two weeks ago. I am also glad that you could relish the results of a spectacular renovation to our athletics and fitness facilities. We’ve had quite a year together!
Most importantly, this year has been enriched by your study and scholarship. Each spring as I host so many of you for lunches and dinners at Pen y Groes, I take a particular pleasure from hearing about your final research projects, both undergraduate and graduate. You are so good at discussing your work that these become, for me, mini seminars on a fascinating range of topics.
This has also been an eventful year for our nation and for the world. The midterm elections that brought President Bill Clinton to campus in campaign mode this fall changed the calculus of American governance. The revolutionary uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, the natural and nuclear tragedies that have crippled Japan and the recent death of the architect of 9/11 will shape the futures of all of us.
At our opening convocation on August 30th I suggested that Bryn Mawr can raise its voice to address the most compelling moral challenge of our century, the brutality routinely inflicted upon so many women and girls around the world. In the signature event of our anniversary year, the Heritage and Hope conference, the College convened a group of global leaders and sounded that call. We brought together educators and activists to envision how to turn the rhetoric about women’s global empowerment into reality. Both the State Department and CARE heard our voices and emerging partnerships with these organizations will be a next step in our College efforts to make a difference. Bryn Mawr’s institutional voice can be effective and so can yours. As graduates of this extraordinary place, one so deeply rooted in aspirations for women’s advancement, you can be powerful advocates for the needs of women worldwide. Whatever your personal and professional pathways, let your years here empower you to speak out, to create the change that will transform lives, both yours and your sisters across the globe.