This is my last column as Interim Dean of Students and is, therefore, an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned and how much I owe to members of the Wellesley community.
It has been fun and eye-opening to work with students and to interact with them in ways that are so different from my usual classroom experiences. I feel like I have a much better understanding of their total lives, not just their academic ones, and I will bring that understanding back into my teaching. I have been inspired by working with the Honor Code Council and observing the seriousness with which most of the community lives with the Honor Code as a guiding principle. And I find hope in the way that students can work across differences of opinion and belief in settings such as CPLA and the Multi-faith Council, demonstrating a model that the rest of the world would do well to emulate.
It has been a privilege to work with the staff in the division of student life. They embody the mission of the college and are essential to the education and support of students. Because they do so much of their work behind the scenes and are sometimes constrained by confidentiality, they are often unrecognized and under-appreciated. I am glad that I have become more acquainted with their work and have been able to make connections between them and faculty members.
I have certainly learned a lot about how students communicate (or not). Like most faculty members, I didn’t know that Yik Yak existed when I first started this job, but now am aware of both its harmful—sometimes hateful—aspects, as well as the more positive ones where students inform and support one another. I have also learned from the experience of other colleges that it is impossible to shut down, so that we need to depend on the community to enforce its own standards.
The idea of failure and second chances has been a theme throughout the year. College Government has sponsored programs encouraging faculty, staff, and alumnae to speak about how they have handled and learned from failures, and the Latinx keynote speaker, Carolota Zimmerman, talked about the importance of “second and third acts” in life. Failure and new beginnings are a constant thread in the stories that returning alumnae tell. I’ve certainly had plenty of failures, mistakes, and “re-boots” in my life and career. In fact, as a scientist, I expect and welcome failure, since you can’t test a model without pushing its limits until it fails. Einstein is said to have remarked, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
Yet the myth of perfection never seems to disappear, and Wellesley continues to be a place where mistakes and missteps are rarely forgotten or forgiven. It would be great if the permission we give ourselves to err or fail could be extended to others. This would require that we assume good faith as a starting point in all our interactions. Within this community, good faith is a reasonable assumption. In all the roles I have held at Wellesley, I have never seen deliberate malice or disrespect; rather, these have been inferred because of inept phrasing or incomplete information—and even occasionally because of passionate disagreement. None of us—faculty, staff, administrators, students—is perfect, and we need to be granted the opportunity to learn from mistakes and not be demonized because of them.
Leadership is another constant theme for our students and alumnae.
Judith White, president and executive director of HERS, an organization that trains individuals and promotes women’s leadership in higher education, wrote in the March 23rd issue of Insider Higher Ed that a crucial skill in leadership is “the ability to open yourself to learning and changing while you lead.”
“Opening yourself to learning and changing” is another way of saying: notice and learn from your mistakes. Bold leadership involves taking risks and occasionally failing. If we can be there to pick one another up when we fall (and fail), not blame but educate those around us, and promote this model of experimentation and constant improvement, we can create a more forgiving and healthier environment for everyone.
I look forward to returning to my academic department and to welcoming the new college leadership in the fall.