President's Address

President Johnson claps from the podium

President Paula A. Johnson addressed the graduating class

Thank you, Secretary Benson, for that inspiring message. 

I think our founders, Henry and Pauline Durant, would be very proud of Secretary Benson, and would urge you to join her in helping to give everyone an equal voice in free and fair elections—one of our most important rights, which helps to secure our power to determine our own lives.

In a sermon that Henry Durant delivered during Wellesley College’s first year, he brushed aside the idea that Wellesley existed merely to offer “a college education for girls.” 

He called higher education for women one of “the great world battle-cries for freedom,” “the assertion of absolute equality,” and preparation “for great conflicts, for vast reforms in social life, for noblest usefulness.” 

In other words, he expected Wellesley graduates to be agents of democracy and champions of justice. And today, as Secretary Benson gave you the instructions, we expect the very same thing of you.

You are not just prepared to lead in your chosen fields. Through our curriculum of connection, you are prepared to listen, learn—sometimes persuade—across party, race, gender, ability, economic class, and all the other fault lines of the 21st century. 

You have spent four years here living in community with an incredibly diverse group of peers. Because of Wellesley’s unique curricular approach to residential life, you’ve had many opportunities to live the ideal of inclusive excellence, to appreciate the wonder of differences, and to see how people with other experiences and perspectives can expand your own horizons. And you are just at the very beginning of an amazing journey, especially if you continue to  allow people who are unlike you to surprise and inspire you on the road ahead.

The world is absolutely desperate for the kind of knowledge you possess. 

Currently, democracies around the globe are threatened by polarization—or the failure of understanding that causes people in one political party to view those in another as the enemy. 

Polarization invites the use of brute power, rather than deliberation, to settle disagreements. And it has grown extreme in the United States, where political divides increasingly align with social and cultural divides that make it difficult for neighbors even to comprehend each other.

Polarization also encourages a second great threat to democracy: a sense of estrangement from a political process that represents only the extremes, that ignores the collective wisdom and tolerance of most Americans, and that stops us from acting together to address existential threats.

Democracies cannot afford widespread passivity and disillusionment. They require active participation from their citizens.  

So, the rising voting rates among young people in the United States are truly a hopeful sign—and hugely important in winning better representation. But voting alone won’t solve the issue of polarization—especially not in the United States’ two-party political system—because our elections are a zero-sum game. Someone wins, and someone loses.

We also need the kind of participation that reveals and builds common ground, the kind of civic engagement that, in a polarized world, embraces the gray spaces and knits together communities. 

Graduates, we need you, each in your way, to help restore something that has gone missing in our public life. Scholars from Robert Putnam on, who published a groundbreaking article in 1995 titled Bowling Alone, have described a decline in civic engagement and social connection in the United States since the 1970s. More recently, another group of scholars has described “civic deserts” throughout the country where there are few opportunities for discussion and problem solving. Volunteering is down, and loneliness is epidemic. 

But this can be turned around. Dr. Hahrie Han, an expert on political participation who started her academic career at Wellesley, has said, “Democracy is a muscle.” 


And like any muscle, if it is not exercised routinely, it will atrophy. Graduates, you are well prepared to exercise that muscle, and you can exercise it in whatever life and career you choose—because everything you do to expand equality and improve lives strengthens our democracy and our world. 

Health care, for example, has been called a piece of “unfinished business” of the Civil Rights movement. And nowhere can we see this more clearly than in the terrible outcomes experienced by Black women in childbirth. They die of pregnancy-related complications at 2.6 times the rate of White women—often because their doctors ignore their risks or dismiss their concerns. A number of Wellesley alumnae are actively addressing this disparity through practice, research, and advocacy. 

They include Dr. Lynne Lightfoote of the class of 1995, who emphasizes that because physicians control the conversation, the onus is on them “to create an atmosphere where people can speak openly and honestly.”

Everyone’s voice should be heard equally in our delivery rooms and in our civic life but some voices are discounted. Whenever you provide the space and time for those voices to be heard, you are sharing power in a world in which it needs to be shared.

Our graduates are elevating voices across so many fields and disciplines, whether they are serving in public office, or taking their seats at the table in business or law, or working for greater justice in the nonprofit sector. 

However, to truly make change takes a willingness to listen and to learn—to open your minds to a broader understanding of complex issues. 

Now, you have had that experience in and outside of the classroom during your time at Wellesley. I think of Professor Smitha Radhakrishnan’s course “Thinking Global,” where you explored the multifaceted and often charged topic of the human costs of free trade and globalization; or Professor Nadya Hajj’s course on Palestinian-Israeli peace, where she used both the classroom and the Wellesley landscape to generate dynamic narratives that opened up dialogue and your ability to wrestle with one of the most divisive, complex topics in the world today.

And I also think of professors Eni Mustafaraj and Julie Walsh’s “ethics of technology” labs. You were not taught what the “right” ethical decision is for any situation or digital technology. Instead, you were given the analytical tools to interrogate your own beliefs and those of your future colleagues and employers—learning how to articulate and defend a moral position.

Graduates, use what you have learned at Wellesley. Take the time to explore an issue fully so you can move forward with the best reasoned set of ideas. Take the time, also, to get to know people with a range of views as human beings, as you often did in your classrooms, your residence halls, and on your playing fields. The work of change often begins with finding that common humanity.

Understand that reason alone doesn’t always motivate action; we sometimes need the evidence of our eyes and our hearts. Very unlikely coalitions can cohere once they see concrete ways to improve lives—and to protect people from absolutist policies that deny their humanity. 

I think, for example, of the “Sister Senators” of the South Carolina State Senate, the only women in that body: three Republicans, one Democrat, and one Independent. Some of the sisters call themselves pro-life, some pro-choice—but they all have banded together to block legislation that would ban abortion beginning at the moment of conception. As Senator [Penry] Gustafson has said, that “allows nothing for the in-between. … There’s got to be a gray area.” 

Now while you may not agree with these senators, being able to find the “gray” is critical to solving so many problems.

A great deal of hope lies in the gray area, if we can find our way to it. And I urge you to help us do that.

Graduates, you are well prepared to live the Wellesley motto Non Ministrari sed Ministrare—“Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” 

I hope that you will minister to our country and to our world by taking on the obligations of citizenship with energy and imagination, by bringing people together across all lines to change what most needs changing, and by offering a model of leadership that embodies tolerance, courage, and respect for all. 

I am so proud of the great golden yellow class of 2023, and I cannot wait to see what you accomplish next!

Thank you.