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Greetings from the Seven Colleges

Thank you. It is such a pleasure to be here, to welcome President Betsy Bradley to the ranks of the Seven Sisters.

As you may know, the name Seven Sisters comes to us from Greek mythology. It refers to Atlas and Pleione’s seven daughters, changed into stars by Zeus. In the night sky, they live on as the star cluster known as the Pleiades.

On earth, they live on as seven great lights of liberal arts education: Along with Vassar, they include Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, and Wellesley, where I took the helm just one year ago. Since taking my own place in this constellation, I’ve come to appreciate the range of qualities that this role requires. Betsy embodies these and more. A humane and creative scholar, deeply grounded in the larger world, I can think of no one better suited to lead Vassar forward.

I have known of Betsy by reputation for many years. How could I not? A world-renowned expert in global health, she has worked to improve health care delivery across the globe, while also pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge as the author of more than 300 peer-reviewed papers and three books.

During her 20-plus years at Yale, she showed herself to be a pragmatic and visionary leader, with wide-ranging commitments, from enhancing student life at the residential college she oversaw, to expanding public health programs for undergraduates, to improving health outcomes in low-income communities and nations. Throughout, she has shown a rare capacity to see the big picture and expand it even further.

Her background spans many worlds, including business, economics, health policy, and higher education. This is a tremendous asset in an age when it’s increasingly clear that the world’s most urgent challenges call on us to work across disciplines.

Given our overlapping interests—as well as many mutual friends—it’s a bit surprising that Betsy and I did not meet in person until last June. It was then that I truly grasped what a prize Vassar had landed. The occasion was a Spotlight Health panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Its title was “Women Who Lead: Colleges Put Health Pioneers at the Helm.” Joining us was another Seven Sisters leader: Smith President—and developmental psychologist—Kathleen McCartney.

The panel got me to thinking. That three of us share this background is indeed striking. What accounts for it? As I listened to these two brilliant colleagues, a few things jumped out at me. One was our shared commitment to an ethic of care. The recognition that people—including students—thrive when they’re fully seen for who they are. The recognition that learning is bound up with health, both mental and physical.

All of us also share a conviction that these Seven Sisters have a unique role to play at this historical moment. The residential liberal arts college is a special place. We are both rigorous institutions of learning—dedicated to the highest standards of scholarship—and homes in best sense of that word: places of inclusion and belonging, where everyone has an equal chance to contribute and be heard.

At our best, we offer a lifelong touchstone, a deep understanding of what a healthy community looks like and how one is created. This is perhaps more important today than ever before. The stars that represent the seven sisters, the Pleiades, are among the closest star clusters to the earth and the most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky. Like our namesakes, we, too, shine brightest in the darkest times.

To some it might seem strange that Vassar is still considered one of the Seven Sisters. After all, these colleges were created to educate women. That was their unifying mission. But in fact, there is a larger purpose that all of us still share: making education more widely accessible—and doing so in an environment free of the limiting assumptions that too often pervade the larger world. In the words of one Vassar alumna from the class of 1931: “Vassar’s commitment in this second century is every bit as new and exciting as it was in its original commitment of 1861.” I couldn’t agree more.

Under President Catharine Hill, Vassar emerged as a national leader in making higher education more accessible to students from low-income families. She left an extraordinary legacy—one that President Bradley now stands poised to build on.

As President Hill told the New York Times: “This is a college that was founded originally for people who could not otherwise get this education—they happened to be women. Today we have so many people who are unable to access this kind of high-quality education, and Vassar is a place that’s really attacking this.” This is a vision for our times. I have no doubt that Vassar will continue to show us the way forward.

So, as I prepared for this occasion, I was struck by how the histories of Vassar and Wellesley have been intertwined from the start. In 1861, Vassar was the first of the Seven Sisters to be chartered as a college instead of a female seminary. Younger sibling Wellesley followed suit.

In 1915, it was Vassar President Henry Noble MacCracken who saw the need for women’s colleges to work together. The day after his inauguration, he called together four of us: Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke. The genesis of the Seven Sisters lies in this historic meeting. Over the years, we’ve learned from each other’s traditions and made them our own. One of the most beloved of these is tree planting day, which began at Vassar in 1868 and is believed to have inspired Wellesley’s adoption of the custom.

And three times, we’ve appointed alumnae of the other school to lead our own. Wellesley’s seventh and 10th presidents—Mildred McAfee Horton and Barbara Newell—were both Vassar alumnae.

And in 1986, a Wellesley alumna, Frances Daly Fergusson, became Vassar’s ninth president. A renowned architectural historian, President Fergusson cared deeply about this beautiful campus. And in her own inaugural address, she described Vassar as “a vast living landscape.” She said, and I quote: “Matthew Vassar could not have predicted the richness and diversity of our college today. But he would have been proud of what we have achieved. We have remained respectful of the original plantings even as each generation has added those of its own that have grown in maturity in the fullness of time, never becoming too tangled or destructive of the original design.” This is a beautiful metaphor—and one every bit as resonant today as it was 30 years ago. Today, Vassar’s landscape blooms brighter than ever before, distinguished both by the abundance and diversity of its growth.

The future is uncertain, but one thing I know: In Betsy Bradley, you have a steward worthy of your gardens.

Paula Johnson
President, Wellesley College

Paula A. Johnson is the 14th President of Wellesley College.

President Paula A. Johnson is a highly respected and passionate leader, deeply committed to women and to sustainably improving their lives. She is recognized internationally as an innovator who has brought her broad range of experience as a researcher, educator, and expert in health care, public health, and health policy to bear in the effort to advance the well-being of women. With a remarkable track record of accomplishments—she founded the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital—she has led in the field of women’s health, taking an approach to biology that integrates insights from sociology, economics, and many other fields.

Johnson was the Grayce A. Young Family Professor in Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School, as well as professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research, her vision, and her interdisciplinary approach to leading at the intersection of health care, education, and public health have placed her in key leadership roles in organizations around the world.