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The Inauguration of Paula Johnson

Welcoming Remarks at the Inauguration of Wellesley College President Paula Johnson

Friday, September 30, 2016, Wellesley College

It is a special privilege to be here today to welcome President Paula Johnson to the ranks of college presidents.

She is a pathbreaking scholar, dedicated physician, and inspiring teacher.

Paula, I am particularly delighted to bring greetings on behalf of your sisters.

No, I don’t mean Leah, who is here today to celebrate with you. I mean your six other sisters: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith and Vassar.

I think it is only right to acknowledge our healthy sibling rivalry.

For one thing, you’re the oldest. But only by a year.

Those of you here today with older siblings know that having a really impressive, really competent older sister is mostly a good thing.

But it can sometimes be…well, let’s face it…a bit annoying.

So let’s talk a bit about our rivalry.

Smith was the first women's college to acquire an "atom smasher"; Wellesley was the first liberal arts college to open a physics lab.

Smith was the first women's college to join the NCAA; Wellesley was the first to have a women’s intercollegiate rowing team—a team that this year made Wellesley the first women’s college to win a national championship.

At Smith we have Sylvia Plath and Betty Friedan; at Wellesley you have Nora Ephron and Diane Sawyer.

We’ve got Gloria Steinem; you’ve got Madeleine Albright.

We’ve got Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem; you’ve got Maria Morris Hambourg, founding curator of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We claim Charlotte York, from Sex and the City; you’ve got Dr. Miranda Bailey, from Grey’s Anatomy. (I know you’re a fan, Paula—me too.)

I really thought we had you beat when our fictional graduate Selina Meyer, vice president on the show Veep, was appointed acting president this season.

A Smith alumna, playing the president of the United States—very exciting!

But then it was brought to my attention that you have a real life alumna who said something about breaking the highest, hardest glass ceiling...

No question: impressive older siblings can be a challenge. But they also can be tremendous teachers. And what Wellesley taught us all, from its very beginnings, is the world-changing impact of asking a simple, powerful question: Why not?

“Why not?” is a brave question—maybe even a radical question. It suggests a challenge to the status quo.

It is what Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked, in a world where women couldn’t vote.

It is what Rosa Parks asked, when told she couldn’t sit at the front of the bus.

It is what countless other women and men, who were prepared to question the social or political or cultural order of their day, asked: Why not me? Why not us? Why not now? 

In 1915, Wellesley joined with Smith and two of our other sisters—Mount Holyoke and Vassar—to examine education in the United States.

That conversation led to what was called the “four college conference” and the official recognition of our strong sisterhood.

A decade or so later we welcomed our other three sisters into the fold. 

One hundred years later, Paula Johnson is the perfect 14th president for Wellesley, embodying its commitment to excellence across disciplines, to creating opportunity for women, to balancing the traditional and the progressive.

A look at Paula’s remarkable career tells us that she, like Wellesley, has constantly looked at the way things are, and dared to ask: Why not?

Prior to 1990, Brigham and Women’s Hospital had never had a woman as its chief resident.

Paula Johnson asked: Why not?

She stepped into one of the most demanding posts in medical training at one of the best hospitals in the world.

She forged a path for others to follow.

As she advanced the field of cardiology she noted that there were very few facilities focused on heart disease in women. She asked: Why not? And created the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, one of the first such facilities in the country.

As a research scientist, Paula studied the ways in which heart disease presents differently—sometimes very differently—in women than in men.

Yet she noted that there weren’t different screening protocols, drug trials, or treatment regimens focused on women.

Again she asked: Why not?, and became a tireless advocate for women’s health. In a 2013 TED Talk, titled “His and Her Healthcare,” she made the case for women’s health as an equal rights issue as important as equal pay.

At their best, colleges like Wellesley and Smith not only teach women leadership, they model it.

Leadership can be global, Paula has said, or just across the hall.

Whether welcoming Mellon Mays Fellows, meeting faculty colleagues, or connecting with folks at the Lulu, Paula is already drawing people together and building community.

She will model leadership at its best—for the Wellesley community and beyond.

As educators, we know that watching and working with others is one of the most transformative ways that residential liberal arts colleges nurture the habits of discovery, of rigor, of teamwork.

Each of your sister institutions will learn from having you here, Paula, learning and leading alongside us.

On behalf of your sisters, let me offer this: we are not only glad you are here, we are here for you.

On those days when you ask “why not?” and the answer doesn’t come easily, climb the Galen Stone Tower and look West and South.

If you squint hard enough you’ll see us sisters—your sisters—urging you on.

And as night falls and the bells of the tower toll for the last time that day, look up.

There in the night sky you will find Pleiades, a cluster of stars named for the seven daughters of Pleione, seven sisters who—according to legend—changed into stars.

That’s what colleges and universities do, at their best.

They shape us.

They change us. 

They transform us and allow us to brighten the night sky and shine a light for others to steer by.

Paula, your sisters are privileged to have you among us.

Welcome to the family. 


President McCartney participated in Wellesley College's "Wellesley Asks" video series as part of President Paula Johnson's inauguration.

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