On Thursday, Feb. 11, the College announced that the selection committee appointed Wellesley’s 14th president, Dr. Paula Johnson, who will begin her tenure on July 1. The announcement was made without any forewarning, and was sent out in an email hours before a conversation and reception to welcome the new president. Despite the suddenness of the announcement, professors cancelled class and students showed up to the event in droves, easily filling up Alumnae Hall. Current President H. Kim Bottomly was not present at the gathering.
Before Dr. Johnson even sat down in her seat on stage, students, faculty and staff gave her a standing ovation. There was a clear consensus in the room that selecting Dr. Johnson was a step in the right direction for the College. Emphasizing issues such as diversity, inclusion and mental health, Dr. Johnson’s comments were met with cheers and enthusiastic responses from the audience.
Dr. Johnson will be Wellesley’s first African American president. She comes from a primarily science background, having completed her undergraduate degree from Harvard Radcliffe and her MD and MPH degrees from Harvard. After training in internal and cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she went on to become the chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It was there she founded the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, where she currently serves as executive director.
The Board of Trustees, in collaboration with the a search committee, spent eight months searching for presidential candidates. Student representatives on the search committee that included Charlotte Harris ’16 and Shivani Kuckreja ’16. Kuckreja noted Johnson’s “kindness, intelligence, warmth and thoughtfulness” as traits that would make her an excellent president. Harris said, “I was looking for a charismatic leader, who was able to articulate a vision for Wellesley that included a model for health and wellness and for inclusion and equity on campus.” Kuckreja confirmed, “When speaking about Wellesley, she never excludes a group of people on campus. To me, this translates to the fact that she wants to hear everyone’s needs.”
In her first speech to the Wellesley community, Dr. Johnson spoke on how Wellesley, as a women’s liberal arts college, is more pertinent to the global community now than ever before. She emphasized the importance of looking at Wellesley’s effects in a global context.
“This is such an amazingly important moment in time for women and women’s leadership. Finally, women’s leadership is being recognized as transforming health, education and economies. However, we also know that gaps remain. And we also know that there is a growing inequity in our society, in our world, and women bear a disproportionate burden of that inequity. So here’s the opportunity and herein lies the need. And this, in my opinion, is what makes Wellesley so relevant and so hopeful in terms of transforming the future,” Dr Johnson said.
On a personal note, Dr. Johnson talked about who was with her in the audience, as well as who was not. Among her supporters was her son, Jonathan Sands, a junior at Harvard College; her husband, Dr. Robert Sands, whom she noted actually attended Wellesley for six months as an exchange student; her mother-in-law, Phyllis Rosenthal Sands, ’46; and her father and 15-year-old daughter, whom she humorously noted were running late — a reality for “a busy family.”
The only person missing was her mother, Grace Johnson. Her mother passed away a few years ago, but her impact on Dr. Johnson’s life and deep commitment to education influences her today.
“[My mother] was a true force of nature. She had a deep belief in educating her daughters and really dedicated her life to that. She was a school secretary and had not had the privilege of going to college, but was deeply committed to independent thinking and to really developing one’s sense of self, voice, and agency. And she fulfilled her lifelong dream of obtaining a liberal arts education and graduated the year after I graduated from medical school,” Dr. Johnson said.
As she spoke about her mother, Dr. Johnson noted how she sees her mother’s legacy at Wellesley and in the students sitting in the audience.
“As I reflect on her incredible life, I always ask ‘what if?’ What if she had access to a Wellesley education? And now I know because I see the ‘what if’ reflected in each and every one of you who are students here in this audience.”
With a few remarks about her hopes to “take Wellesley into the future,” Dr. Johnson concluded her speech. The event made its way downstairs into Alumnae Ballroom, where students, faculty, and other guests had the opportunity to personally congratulate and welcome Dr. Johnson to Wellesley.