Remarks at Opening Convocation 2013
Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, September 2, 2013
Good evening, everyone!
I didn’t know quite what to expect tonight, and I have to admit I feel a little overdressed.
This is a remarkable occasion.
I’d like to start the evening by welcoming the Class of 2017! You are our newest Smithies — and I am new as well. I know we’ll find our way together.
And then there are the sophomores — the Class of 2016!
And the juniors! The Class of 2015!
And the Ada Comstock Scholars! Let’s hear from you!
And let me be the first to welcome the great Class of 2014 to the official start of their senior year!
Some of you have just finished your orientation and are still learning your way around. Maybe you even got lost coming here this evening. Though, to be honest, I could hear you from my house — John M. Greene isn’t very hard to find tonight.
For those of you who know the campus like the back of your hand...I have a request: If a first-year asks you for directions — or, let’s be honest, if the president asks you for directions, make sure to remember your own first week on this campus. Your first week in this town. Your own first time seeing Paradise Pond. Your own first ice cream cone at Herrell’s. The moment you found out which house you’d soon call home.
Remember that sense of excitement. Embrace it. And celebrate it. It’s yours.
I’ve asked a lot of people how I should get to know the Smith culture. Most have given me the same advice. “Eat in the houses,” they said. “As many as you can get invited to.” So I’ve kept some meals open on my calendar for Bill and me to stop by. That is, if you don’t mind the company.
I’m on Twitter, and I promise to give a shout out to the best house welcome I get. Not that you’re competitive or anything, but I’ve already been invited by Hubbard and Sessions.
Since I’ve just invited myself over, it would only be right for me to invite you to an event. A special event. The Smith Board of Trustees is throwing a big party — a presidential inauguration for me. And you are all invited.
On Friday, October 18, the night before my inauguration, there’s going to be a student inauguration celebration. A party. In the campus center. Mark your calendars now.
Your SGA President, Gussie Gronquist, is on the planning committee for the inauguration. I’ve been telling her about some of my favorite music, my favorite guilty junk food. But you should let her know what YOU’D like to have.
We’ll be dancing, so send me a tweet with any music requests — my Twitter handle is presmccartney. That’s “pres” with an “s.” In fact, I’m guessing some of you are Tweeting right now. If so, I need a good theme song for my presidency, so go ahead and send me some suggestions.
Tonight marks the beginning of the academic year. For many of you, it marks the official beginning of your college career. For others, it will be one of the last times you come together with your class before you cross the Commencement stage in May.
There are a lot of beginnings here today. For 16 new faculty members, this is the start of their academic careers at Smith. Please join me in welcoming them to the community.
That so many students, faculty, and staff are here tonight speaks volumes about Smith. We will do good work here this year. And our work will be grounded in a larger cultural context. For example, it was a momentous summer for civil rights in the United States, one that saw this country take important steps forward and several steps back.
We gained new rights and, almost simultaneously, reversed important gains secured decades by those who came before us. We celebrated the end of DOMA — the Defense of Marriage Act — securing important civil rights for gay and lesbian couples. At the same time, we saw the dismemberment of one of the most important civil rights victories in our history.
That we are a nation that could both strike down DOMA and parts of the Voting Rights Act in the span of two days shows how many divisions remain in the United States. How much work we still have to do. You are the ones who will take up that work. You are in the right place to begin this work.
You will have help. You will have resources, opportunities and allies. You will have beside you the remarkable support of the Smith community — now and always.
Each one of us must work to keep the Smith community, our community, strong. Strong communities like ours create a space for disagreement, for inclusion, for differences, and for shared experiences – like this Convocation.
Most important, strong communities are caring and kind.
Have any of you read George Saunders’ Commencement speech to Syracuse University? It went viral. Clearly, it resonated deeply with many people, including me. His words spoke strongly to me as an educator, a parent, a colleague, and a newcomer to this campus.
Saunders told the graduates that his biggest regrets in life were not about money, not about jobs, not about passing up risky opportunities. He said, and I quote, “So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”
There were moments, he said, when “another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded...sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Be kinder, he urged. His point was that he could have done more, should have done more. For the past couple of years, I have been partnering with others to make schools more caring communities. This has been the most rewarding work of my career. Let me give you two examples.
In my former role as Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I invited Stephanie Germanotta, a victim of bullying, to speak about her experiences. Stephanie, otherwise known as Lady Gaga, and her mother, Cynthia, used that moment to launch the Born This Way Foundation.
Recently I partnered with Kerry Kennedy, the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, to develop ways to prevent bullying in schools. Our idea was to create a public service campaign — like the designated driver campaign, which dramatically decreased drunk driving.
Kerry is a force of nature. She bought together a group of child psychologists, including me; an advertising company; and Chrysler Corporation. The result is an advertising campaign that began this summer.
When I was a child, no one wore seat belts. Now we do. Behavior can change. Culture can change. I’ve seen so-called cultural norms — prejudices, misguided beliefs, and the laws enacted around them — vanish in a generation. You have, too.
The kindness you find here — the kindness you create here — is and will be just as powerful as the diploma you will bring with you into the world beyond the Grécourt Gates. It can open doors. It can open minds. It can close divides.
We have all committed failures of kindness because we are human.
But we can work to make this strong community stronger. We can reach out to someone new. We can listen with an open mind to people with differing views from our own. We can forgive someone who has hurt us. You might think that sounds corny. Maybe it does, but you’ll find I’m okay with that.
Tonight is all about beginnings.
On the eve of new beginnings — yours, and mine...
At a time of great unrest in so many nations and regions of the world...
On a night where we hold great hopes for the work of the year to come, and for our life in community....
Be kind. Be smart. Be ambitious. Be courageous. Be loud.
Yes, you know how to be loud.