Skip to main content

Remarks at Opening Convocation 2014

Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, September 3, 2014

Welcome home, Smithies!

We’ve missed you! I’ve missed you!

You bring this campus back to life! And you do it with style!

As usual, I’m feeling a bit overdressed.

Most of you know that last fall was my first convocation.

All year long, people introduced me as the “new president.” I’ve been looking forward to this evening, because I’m done with that. From this point onward, I can say I am the old president of Smith College.

I know my way around town, I’ve experienced every Smith tradition — well, at least every official tradition. I’ve mastered the acronyms and the campus shortcuts. I’m even ready for winter.

Smith is my home. And soon Smith will feel like home to the first-year students. Let’s hear it for the great class of 2018!

And then there are the sophomores — the Class of 2017!

And the juniors! The Class of 2016!

And the Ada Comstock Scholars! Let’s hear from you!

And, finally, let me be the first to welcome the great Class of 2015 to the official start of their senior year!

Speaking of seniors, let’s give a huge Smith cheer — a Pioneers cheer — for Paige Christie, only the sixth Smithie to swim across the English Channel!

More people have summited Mount Everest than have done what you did, Paige. We are so proud of you!

When people ask me what is the best part of being president of Smith, the answer is right in front of me, right now.

It’s you, our amazing students. You are talented, creative, engaged, and fun. One look at you tonight, and it’s clear you’re fun.

I admire especially how engaged you are as citizens of the world.

You care about the global over-reliance on fossil fuels. You care about the conflict in Gaza. You care about Michael Brown. You care about the mid-term Congressional elections coming up this fall. And you care about your commencement speaker.

I’m proud that you care.

I learned last year that there is a range of views on most issues here at Smith — not only among students, but among faculty, staff, and alumnae. This year, let’s think together about how we create a community where disagreement is robust and treasured.

Robin Morgan, the feminist writer and activist, powerfully proclaimed that “hate generalizes; love specifies.” When we generalize, we don’t seek to understand the view of others. When we generalize, we simplify — or worse, distort — others’ views, all to win an argument.

That may win the moment but it’s a hollow victory.

Instead of generalizing, or assuming, we need to seek to understand the views of others by asking questions of one another; by taking the perspective of one another; by seeing the nuance in our deeply-held convictions.

Let’s not generalize; let’s specify.

Reasonable people disagree, especially on college campuses. New knowledge arises from healthy tensions among us. The ability to disagree is a sign of a strong community.

At Smith, our house system is strong because students encounter a diverse group of students from diverse cultures with diverse ideas. Our academic departments are strong because our faculty protects and values academic freedom. Our administration is strong because the staff encourages challenges to the status quo — a process that leads to innovation.

A letter I received from a Smith alumna made vivid the consequences of political intolerance.

A member of the class of 1969 recalled how her friend, one of 12 avowed Republicans on campus, was shunned by the students in her house because she supported the Vietnam War.

They wouldn’t pass phone messages to her. They wouldn’t eat with her. She ate every meal with the house mother. One of the most cherished elements of the Smith experience — house life, house community — turned its back on her.

I did not support the Vietnam War. But, then as now, I don’t support bullying behavior toward others with different views from mine.

I want to work to create a community where we celebrate differences of opinion.

Are you with me?

In doing so, we are educated.

This year, we will be holding a series of conversations, on campus and off, about campus discourse. About the importance of engaging provocative ideas — even offensive ideas — fearlessly, with rigor and respect.

I have asked our new provost to chair a working group consisting of students, faculty, staff and alumnae. This group will do outreach in our community and help plan events.

Let me tell you about a first event. On Monday, September 8 at 4:30 in the Weinstein Auditorium at Wright Hall, we will host faculty members from Columbia, Fordham, Hampshire and UMass, for a panel discussion titled “Putting Ferguson in Context(s).” This panel will be moderated by Riché Barnes, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies. Alice Hearst, professor of government and Jennifer Walters, Dean of Religious Life, organized the program.

Throughout this year we will talk about things that are hard, heated and polarizing. Issues on which people of goodwill and good faith disagree profoundly. In doing so, we will model the best of an engaged citizenry and an intellectual community. We will model the best of Smith.

We are beautiful in our differences. And we are also beautiful when we gather in community.

Like tonight.

Tonight we are united in our love of Smith; of women’s empowerment; of the value of a liberal arts education, and the importance of community.

Here’s to a year of uniting — and disagreeing. Here’s to a year of asking questions — including the hard ones. Here’s to a year of listening — deeply — to those who disagree with us. Here is to a year of specifying more than generalizing. Here is to a year of loving.

Thank you, Smithies.