For those of us who attended the September inauguration of Dr. Paula Johnson as President of Wellesley College, it was clear early on that something extraordinary was happening. It wasn’t the big name line up or the beautifully orchestrated program. It was the unrestrained enthusiasm of the Wellesley community as they embraced their new president for who she is as much as what she stands for.
As Wellesley’s first African American President, Johnson’s ascendancy to the head of one of the most prestigious colleges in America is no doubt a milestone worth celebrating. But as I learned more about Wellesley College, Johnson’s presidency seems inevitable for an institution founded on democratic principles; this was the culmination of a long-held vision, and it showed.
As Johnson entered the inaugural tent to cheers of “PJ, PJ,” I noticed a few students in front of me embracing each other with tears in their eyes. These young African American women shared something I would never equally appreciate, but it touched me profoundly and personally in a way that would be underscored by what Johnson said in her inaugural address.
She spoke of the power of intersections – the positive force that results from the joining of different dimensions. “Our future, the world’s future, will hinge on our ability to put aside differences for the common good – to join forces across political parties, across cultures, across belief systems, and across every boundary, virtual and physical, that you can imagine.”
Before coming to Wellesley, Johnson was the founding director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the Grace A. Young Family Professor of Medicine in the Field of Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School, and a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. With three degrees from Harvard, Johnson talked of the importance of evidence in a world where fact-based knowledge is under fire. But the physician/scientist turned college president spoke equally of the immense value of a liberal arts education. “If the sciences tell us how, the humanities and arts remind us why,” she said.
She said how delighted she was to discover that Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley’s second president (1882-1887), had written about happiness and physical health as topping the list of the “lifelong benefits conferred by a college education.” Johnson said she was inspired to learn how “very deep these commitments to health and well-being run” at Wellesley—a commitment she plans to pursue as a priority during her presidency.
“In recent years,” she said, “many have questioned the notion that the colleges should prioritize being welcoming places – the idea being that this is at odds with rigorous learning. I reject that wholeheartedly. We can, and I believe we must, have a rigorous learning community that is also a true home in the best sense of that word. Regardless of our race, ethnicity, age, religion, physical capabilities; regardless of what we believe, where we come from, or who we love – all of us, all of you, deserve to be seen and appreciated for exactly who you are.”
Her message of belonging touched all of us there that day and can be taken as wise words for colleges and universities hoping to strengthen their communities.