President's Address

President Johnson at the podium

President Paula A. Johnson’s 2019 address to the graduating class

Over the past year, the Wellesley community engaged in the reflective process of value clarification. What began as part of our routine re-accreditation process—asking ourselves, “Who are we? What do we aspire to be?”—will have ripple effects for years to come.

The process we went through as an institution mirrors the one that each one of us undertakes as an individual. Each of us is called on to decide the values we will live by. Each of us must make hard calls when our values come into conflict. Indeed, you have done this throughout your lives, in ways both large and small.

Such choices loom especially large at moments such as this one. Which brings me to what I want to talk with you about today: the concept of moral courage.

Today, you stand on the cusp of a new life chapter. You have spent years preparing for this moment—and now, here you are. I suspect you have a mix of emotions—happiness, pride, and excitement, yes, but also some anxiety and maybe fear.

How could it be otherwise? You are moving from a world you know to an uncharted land. How will you navigate this new terrain? Do you have what you need?

Let me reassure you: The answer is absolutely yes!

Class of 2019: You are extraordinary. Whatever you choose to do, I am confident you can succeed. The question isn’t what you can do, but what direction you take. What will you seek to achieve, and how you will go about it? What will guide your decisions? What difference will you make?

In the course of these past months, our community identified the following foundational values:

  • intellectual discovery and excellence;
  • gender equality;
  • diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • connection and community;
  • empowerment and social change; and
  • integrity and academic freedom.

And I think we heard those echoed through the morning. As our newest graduates, you now have a chance to carry these values into the larger world. This is both a gift and a responsibility.  

It’s one thing to hold a value—to be clear on your beliefs. But living into your values is something else entirely. It requires you to move from belief to action. It requires moral courage.

So what is moral courage?

The writer and activist Irshad Manji defines it as “doing the right thing despite your fears.” Researcher and author Brené Brown notes that the word courage once meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” This makes so much sense to me. There is a reason that Anita Hill’s memoir is called Speaking Truth to Power.

As we celebrate your accomplishments, we also celebrate what you will carry with you: the values and community that unite us across time and space.

Wellesley alumnae have been described as “the most powerful women’s network in the world.” At one level, this speaks to the number of alumnae who have risen to prominence in their professions and now stand ready to lend a hand to you, the next generation. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Equally important are deep friendships and profound connections. Knowing your community has your back. And, most of all, believes in you.

Today, I challenge each one of you to use these gifts well. To have the courage of your convictions—and the courage of your values.

For inspiration, you need look no further than the Wellesley community. There are so many powerful stories. I keep learning new ones.

To give you just one example: As I prepared for a trip to India last winter, I wanted to learn more about Wellesley alumnae in the region. Some I already knew well—including the amazing women who would be hosting me. But others were unfamiliar. One of them was Nayantara Pandit Sahgal, Wellesley class of 1947.

At the time, I knew little beyond the fact that, in 2002, she’d received an Alumnae Achievement Award. So I took a closer look. I reviewed her accomplishments—her award-winning novels and political journalism. Her service as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.

I learned that during the 1970s, she’d opposed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s crackdown on civil liberties—known as The Emergency—and ultimately fled the country. All the more notable as Indira Gandhi was her cousin.

Then I did a quick Google search—just wanting to be sure that I wasn’t missing anything important. I was stunned to find this headline, from just days earlier—it read: “What Nayantara Sahgal would have said if she was allowed to address Marathi literary meet.”

Now keep in mind that Nayantara Sahgal is in her 90s. And yet, here she is at the center of a national controversy. Why had she been disinvited to this prestigious event?

I quickly learned that the answer lay in her perceived opposition to the Indian government. As she wrote in the suppressed speech, which was excerpted in India Today: “We are seeing that the questioning mind, the creative imagination, and freedom of expression have no place in the present political climate, and where there is no respect for freedom of thought or for democratic rights, writing becomes a risky activity.”

At this historical moment, I suspect these words resonate with many of you—regardless of where you live.

Sadly, we weren’t able to meet during my trip—her travel schedule was too busy! But we did have a lovely email exchange.

She told me the speech was later published by the global writers organization PEN International, for which she also serves as honorary vice president.

* * *

In sharing my thoughts about this alumna, I don’t mean to suggest that you follow in her footsteps—or in anyone else’s, unless that path calls to you. At issue is the spirit of moral courage, not its specifics.

Last month, I attended a “moving on” ceremony for this year’s three graduating Mastercard Foundation Scholars—they sit among you today and are part of a global initiative to develop next-generation leaders, primarily from Africa.

Towards the end of the ceremony, those of us in attendance were asked for a single word to send your three classmates off with. Mine was strength.

Today, I offer this same word to all of you. May you have the strength to live your values—to demonstrate moral courage when and where it matters most.

You graduate into a world that is far different than the one I would have wished for you.

Democratic values and institutions are under fire. Inequality is soaring, with the increasing concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.

For women, the obstacles are especially daunting. Unequal pay. Sexual harassment. Inadequate access to health care, including reproductive health services. These are just a few of the landmines that lie before you. For many of you, these are magnified by other identities—race, class, religion, nationality, disability, and gender, to name just a few.

Yet, having watched you over these past years, one thing is crystal clear. Your strengths outweigh your vulnerabilities. You are stronger than you know.

You are stronger than you know. If you remember nothing else from my remarks today, I hope these words stay with you.

It’s so easy to confuse discomfort with danger. But unless you learn to distinguish the two, you’ll always sell yourself short. And this not only shortchanges you—it also shortchanges the world.

The greater the challenge, the more urgent it becomes that you step into your power—that you make the most of the privileges and gifts you have been afforded. Regardless of what else life throws your way, you will also and always be a graduate of Wellesley College. This, too, is your identity. And that is a wonderful (and powerful) thing.

* * *

For all the perils of this moment, I see so much reason for hope. Take a look around you! All over the world, women are running for—and winning—elected office in record numbers, including Wellesley alumnae. We are joining forces to demand fair and respectful treatment, not only for ourselves but also for other vulnerable people and groups.

Each of you is part of that. As you embark on this new chapter, I urge you to mine the full extent of your capacities. To defy not only the world’s expectations but your own expectations for yourself. I urge you to be defiant on behalf of your values.

This is the essence of moral courage. It is also the heart of what it means to live well.

The great writer Maya Angelou had this to say when she spoke at Wellesley’s commencement, in 1982: “Of all your attributes—your youth, your beauty, your wit, your kindnesses”—the list goes on—“courage is indeed your greatest achievement. It is the greatest of all your virtues, for without courage you cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.”

Class of 2019: You have so many virtues. May you have the courage to live them.

I am so proud of both who you are and what you’ve done. I can’t wait to see the ways that you change the world!