From the President
Commencement 2016 brought an unplanned but perhaps unsurprising convergence of themes in the remarks of our commencement speaker, Ruth Simmons, president emerita of both Smith College and Brown University, and Caroline Willis ’66, who gave a closing reading on behalf of the Board of Trustees.
President Simmons made a stirring call to women and men to respond to the growth of bigotry against women in our national discourse. Recalling her own experiences as an African-American girl growing up in Texas, she reminded those gathered of the enormous power of bigoted rhetoric and in turn of the responsibility we have to speak publicly to counter the effects of speech that creates a medium for harassment and violence.
Caroline Willis read from the 1996 Convocation remarks of former Dean of the Undergraduate College Karen Tidmarsh, in which Karen reflected on why Bryn Mawr, “founded to give women the full use of their minds and talents,” was also and perhaps unintentionally structured to provide “one of the best educations for citizenship I know of.” [As Karen noted, “women couldn’t vote in the U.S. when the College was founded, or for many years later,” which “must have made citizenship a somewhat sore subject.”] In support of her claim, Karen cites the impact of giving students a high level of responsibility for governing their own behavior and of asking them to regulate their community through an Honor Code. Karen reminded her audience that Bryn Mawr students have always “grappled every year with the issues on which democratic societies are founded: who leads and how; what degree of regulation is needed; how conflicts should be resolved; how much deviance from the community norms can and should be tolerated.”
Karen’s remarks capture a core belief about education for citizenship that informs the mission of residential liberal arts colleges and about its distinctive manifestation at Bryn Mawr. The College continues to foster the sometimes difficult, often messy, and ultimately rich experience of taking responsibility for creating a democratic and ethical community. Inevitably that work will include failures as well as successes. At our best, however, we are able to learn from both.
I am often asked by alumnae/i about current student activism on national and global issues and about student involvement in politics. For many of you, engagement with political issues of the day—including civil rights, women’s rights, the 1960s anti-war movement, the drive to divest from apartheid-era South Africa, environmental threats—were integral parts of your undergraduate experience and have continued to inform your civic interests. Although no single issue commands the attention of our student body at present, many undergraduate and graduate students are actively committed to social justice issues and to being agents of change. They are deeply aware of the impacts of economic inequity; of bias related to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality; and of global climate change. I am struck by the number of recent graduates who hope to pursue careers that contribute to addressing inequality and injustice in their many forms.
Of course Bryn Mawr alumnae/i follow many different professional paths, and relatively few will spend their lives as activists or in elected politics (although I encourage more of us to consider paths to political leadership, where gender equity remains elusive in most countries). What Simmons and Tidmarsh speak to, however, is a distinctive education in citizenship made possible at a liberal arts college for women that all of our alumnae take out into the world and have the obligation to use. As Simmons reminded members of the Class of 2016, “You have been privileged to have the education that Bryn Mawr affords. Now, go and make it mean something! Be strong in your views. Let your conduct reflect the amazingly courageous history of this place. Give no quarter to those who exploit the divisions among us…. And most of all, most of all, be a champion for equality wherever you go.”