President Woo’s Inauguration Speech

Posted on September 22, 2017 by Meredith Woo

September 22, 2017

Dear Trustees, Students, Faculty, Alumnae, Friends — and Alice Dixon who commandeered every aspect of this day, including the Heavens for the glorious sunshine:

This day belongs to you, as much as it does to Sweet Briar College, and to this president who is now called upon to lead it. The campus looks immaculate, thanks to the facilities staff, who have worked around the clock to put our best face forward on this wonderful day. I am noticing there are flower baskets hanging from poles over 8 feet. This must be part of their daily battle with the deer that cohabit this land with us. If we can’t maintain flowers that spring from the ground up, they must be hoisted to the sky. Thank you for adding exuberant color to what is otherwise a palette of emerald green.

Today is also the Founder’s Day, and as is our tradition, I led the procession this morning up to Monument Hill, which is the highest point on what used to be a plantation, and that overlooks the campus. On that hill, we are always reminded of the origins of this College. On the monument it is inscribed, “dedicated to the sweet remembrance of Dear Daisy by her sorrowing parents, James Henry and Indie Fletcher Williams.” They were sorrowing parents — in the present progressive — that is, they were in grief so deep and profound over the loss of their only daughter that it nearly incapacitated them. Aeschylus, the Greek playwright, once wrote about such pain as the Williamses must have experienced: “And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Daisy was born in Sweet Briar in September 1867, 150 years ago to date. Amid the ravages of the war, the ruins of the economy and their way of life, and poverty that surrounded the confines of Sweet Briar Plantation, she was a child living on an island of extraordinary privilege. Dividing her time between New York and Amherst, she went to New York’s best schools to receive instruction in music, European languages, algebra, history, philosophy, literature and geography; and supplemented her learning through visits to museums, opera, theatre — and for a little R&R, Barnum’s Circus. She was taken to shop at Lord and Taylor’s and Tiffany’s, and she browsed books at Brentano’s. On her beloved Sweet Briar Plantation where she spent the summers, she acquired an expert understanding of trees, fruits, plants and especially flowers, most of which flourished around the Sweet Briar House. Her mother, Indiana, was her tutor in the science of botany.

Had her life not been cut short, she would have gone on to enjoy a life of privilege and consequence. She was being groomed to meet at the highest level the demands of the time for someone of her social standing. But even from the perch of great wealth and privilege, she would have been witness to a most complex and baffling part of history, both here in the United States and abroad.

Daisy still would have lived in the South of Jim Crow. Daisy still wouldn’t have had voting rights, well into her middle age. In fact, she would have lived at a time when women would have fought, failed, fought and failed again, before finally gaining their rights.

Daisy also would have observed, perhaps from her brownstone in New York and the plantation in Amherst, the unfolding of a century the historian Eric Hobsbawm called the Age of Extremes, which he begins with World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. This Age of Extremes was defined by massive wars including atomic bombs, communism, fascism, the Holocaust and mass exterminations — disasters that became magnified by modern ideologies, aided by technology, which managed to incinerate societies on an unprecedented scale.

However terrible our recent problems — the brutalities of terrorism, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, nuclear proliferation in North Korea, the antediluvian Taliban and ISIS wanting to rule Afghanistan and maybe the modern world as well, and the refugees from the destruction of entire countries, as in Syria, Iraq and Libya — they don’t compare with the large-scale brutalities of the organized madness of the 20th century that Daisy would have witnessed, had she lived to be an old and wise woman.

Our students assembled here — you — are fortunate to have been born and reared outside the Age of Extremes (ISIS not withstanding). So, your citizenly duty is to make sure that these extremes of hatred and racism not rear their heads, and the organized madness of the 20th century remains in and of a most unfortunate past. Our students here today are some of the most diverse to arrive at the College. Look at yourselves: you are diverse, measured by the usual metrics — by ethnicity and race. You are diverse by another measure of diversity: diversity is excellence, and I hope we measure our excellence by the way we cherish and work with differences.

I had a colleague at the University of Michigan, Scott Page, a game theorist who wrote a fine book called The Difference. It is full of equations that show groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. Diversity yields superior outcomes, and the difference beats out homogeneity, whether you are talking about citizens in a democracy or scientists in the laboratory. The best collective whole that exceeds the sum of its parts is one that relies on human diversity — not what we look like from outside, but what we look like from within, our distinct tools and abilities.

The world faces enormously complex problems that require truly creative solutions. To solve those problems, we need people with diverse skills — people with different ways of conceptualizing, imagining and doing things; people with different life experiences and different memories of what worked and what didn’t; people with different referents. People who think alike, with the same referents, experiences and skillsets cannot get quite as far in solving complex problems. That is why Silicon Valley, with the variegated multitude of humanity from every background, revolutionized the world and continues to go forward from strength to strength; why Manhattan, a magnet for humanity from everywhere, is so dynamic, constantly reinventing capitalism as it resuscitates and rejuvenates it.

Much as I hope some of you will one day attain the wealth that Daisy would have inherited, it is true that what you have inherited is perhaps more valuable: an open age where you can learn, grow, experiment and ultimately find out what works for you. It is an optimistic age where, in spite of all our economic difficulties and political differences, all things worldly are open to you. As written in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the world is your oyster.

At Sweet Briar, we prepare you, so you will have your very own oyster — and eat it too. Thousands of Sweet Briar alumnae fought for or rooted for Sweet Briar so it will continue to produce, as it has done for over a century, women of consequence. Many are here today, including the alumnae members of the board of directors as well as Saving Sweet Briar Inc., and classes from the 1930s on down to the present. They are women of great intelligence, experience and energy — and above all, indomitable will.

Two years ago, the revolt of the alumnae made history in American higher education, but I am not sure what to call it. We might call it the War of the Roses, if that doesn’t evoke struggles of English royal houses donning different colors of roses; or the Revolution of the Roses, if that had not referred to the transfer of power in the country of Georgia (as in Eastern Europe, not the American South). Whatever it is called, it altered for once and all the role and significance of the stakeholders in the American college: alumnae are no longer people who simply send in the checks in December and May — although I would still urge you to do that — or in a different context, to tailgate before football games. They can also be protectors and guardians of great and venerable institutions.

Arriving as I did four months ago to this College, I am not privy to the revolt of the roses that got us to where we are today. Over the summer, however, I witnessed something I’d never seen before in my life as a university administrator — so many women, as well as some men, who flooded this campus to do simple hard labor, to prepare the College for the arrival of this year’s students. I saw alumnae, along with some faculty and staff, painting over 200 rooms and all the halls in four dorms — Manson, Carson, Grammer and Meta Glass. I saw women painting the parlor of Grammer, belting out Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, with Diana Ross on the radio. I saw women cleaning the cornerstone of Fletcher Hall, which contains the inscription that reveals the spiritual foundations of this secular college: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” I saw women pulling weeds, pruning, raking and mulching.

These are Sweet Briar women — professionals, mothers, sisters, daughters, wives — and increasingly, caregivers for their elderly parents: they were back, to retrieve the past that meant so much for them, and to make it meaningful again for the students who come after them. Revolutionaries are often forgetful people. They shake up the status quo, usher in the new, and then they get lost in the order of things they have wrought. But not the Sweet Briar women — they have been back time and again, every July and August, to give their labor of love to the generations after them.

Women’s colleges are anachronisms, some people say, artifacts of the time when women were denied education in fine private colleges and universities — and that when the latter flung open their doors to women, it marked the end of women’s colleges as we knew them.

As the great American philosopher Yogi Berra, once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Or as a German philosopher, Hegel, once put it, “the owl of Minerva stretches its wings with the falling of the dusk.” Historical wisdom is only possible with the passage of time — and not before.

If the number of women’s colleges is shrinking in the United States, the number was never great in the rest of the world either. There are countries that entered modernity through communist revolution — like Russia, China and others — for whom equality translated to gender equality, which translated to coeducation at all levels including higher education. The colleges and universities in that part of the world were born coeducational. Then there are countries that entered modernity through struggles for national independence and decolonization. In many of the post-colonial societies gaining their independence after World War II, their colleges and universities, too, were born coeducational. Single-sex higher education for women was considered un-modern, if not premodern, or unprogressive — or in fact, largely unknown.

Universities and colleges are bellwethers, they are incubators of leaders and the promises of the future. Around the world, they are both doing well — they are exploding with students — and they are not so well. According to the UNESCO, in 1900, the percentage of people in the relevant age group that was enrolled in college was less than one percent. In 2000, it was 20 percent. By 2014 it climbed to 34 percent. Not all of these students are learning in beautiful classrooms as our students do. They may be getting their education in class, or through educational TV, or online, or through papers delivered on the backs of donkeys. But they are enrolled in colleges, which are big, getting bigger, even getting “massified.” Meanwhile, all around the world, except perhaps in Northeast Asia, the governments are retrenching fiscally and backing away from the support of colleges and universities. In short, the numbers are up, but the quality is down.

This raises two related sets of questions: What is to be done about the questionable quality of higher education, and about the women who are enrolled, often in greater numbers than men — even as the halls of their governments, political parties, not to mention their board rooms, remain eerily bereft of women?

From Cape Town in South Africa, where people have never heard of colleges for women only, to Beijing, China, where they look to their neighbors like Korea and Japan with thriving single-sex institutions, they are beginning to ask important questions about the quality of education and about education that meaningfully empowers women — and not in name only. What these nations have on their hands today is the remains of the day of higher education, and not always a good education, predicated on their idiosyncratic conception of modernity as well as gender equality.

Women’s colleges are a good idea — it is one whose time has come, and not gone. Around the world, people look to the United States — and excellent small women’s colleges like Sweet Briar — to meaningfully provide the kind of education that allows women to find their place in the sun (or to have their oyster and eat it, too.)

My good friend Kamal Ahmad, who founded the Asian University of Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh, is here with us today. You may know that I worked for a philanthropic organization called the Open Society Foundations, directing the Global Higher Education Program. One of the institutions we supported was AUW. It is an American-style liberal arts college for women, a small and excellent one like Sweet Briar. It receives and educates largely first-generation women, from countries that God has not smiled upon. One of the things Kamal and I did together was to recruit for AUW 70 of the best and brightest young women from an ethnic group called the Rohingyas — arguably one of the most persecuted peoples in the world, most of whom reside in Myanmar and Bangladesh (although nearly half a million have fled for their lives to Bangladesh just in recent weeks) — and to have their young women educated at AUW in the best tradition of the liberal arts. Kamal has bet, and I supported him, that these young Rohingya women are the leaders of tomorrow who will in turn help educate other Rohingya people, and who will help build their society when ethnic persecution is no more, and their future is finally and firmly in their hands. When you educate women, he always told me, they will in turn educate their families, their clans and, eventually, their societies. AUW produces women who are confident, smart, articulate and even a little in-your-face.

I am preternaturally attracted to people who are resilient and tough — like women at Sweet Briar — and who say no when they are told to say yes, because in their gut they believe it is the right thing to do. I read somewhere that more real intelligence resides in your gut than in your brain; the Sweet Briar women are probably Exhibit A in this regard.

I grew up in Korea, at the time a country still reeling from the devastations of war — maybe just a little like Daisy after the Civil War. When Korea became independent in 1945, my father was in the first class to graduate from college, gaining a degree in economics. He immediately joined the Ministry of Finance, and then the Economic Planning agency. For the next 30 years he designed, along with his colleagues, something called “industrial policy.” By the economic nostrums of the age, this was the wrong thing to do. They were repeatedly told they should not do five-year plans — only the Soviets did that; they were told they should not focus on manufacturing because their comparative advantage was in agriculture; they were told they should not export because they had nothing to offer that anyone would want to buy. In any event, they continued to design five-year indicative plans for industries they wanted to encourage, and also supported with compassion and intelligence the industries that were left behind. My father would leave home at 5 a.m. to visit the local market for a spot check on the price of charcoal briquettes (used to heat homes) and of squares of tofu. This would tell him how prices were fluctuating throughout the country. Over half a century, civil servants like my father took a country poor by every measure except education, set progressive goals and export targets which were met year after year after year, until they soon transcended any experience in modern times in terms of economic growth — South Korea was the most rapidly growing country in the world from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s.

I have in my heart a complicated understanding about those intelligent voices said to reside in the gut, voices that defy all principles and rules, that defy powers-that-be who tell you what you can’t do. That is why I am in awe of the women at Sweet Briar, and deeply honored to lead this venerable institution into the future. With you, I am determined to show through example how higher education can be transformed when all our stakeholders are unified with the singular purpose to create a future that is open, exciting and new.

But now we return to our old Greek friend, Aeschylus, who wrote of pain that is relentless and unceasing — and of the wisdom that, in spite of it all, comes to us “by the awful grace of God.” We wonder about that wisdom which inevitably found its way into the hearts of the sorrowing parents.

Shortly after the announcement of my appointment, I received a handwritten note from Ellen Saunders, an alumna who lives in Suffolk, Va. Indiana Fletcher Williams had written in her last will — the one that created the College — that it must educate women to be “useful members of society.” Ruminating on the word “useful,” Ellen reflected that the most meaningful measure of success that she might apply to her life is not the heights that she might have climbed in her profession nor the success she might have had as mother, wife or homemaker. What she had done was to endeavor to be useful — to her family, to her society, to all whom she touched.

It is a sign of a life well-lived. It is also the life of the Sweet Briar women, as Indiana would have wanted, and which was so well fulfilled. I am so full of hope for the future ahead of us — to become of use to the young women gathered here, so they can go forth in the world — and just crush it.

Thank you.