Farewell to Wellesley’s President

Diane Speare Triant writer
Brian Smith photographer

For some, women’s college presidents conjure up old clichés: stern and stocky, serious and scholarly, strident and strong. But Diana Chapman Walsh, a complex mix of vitality, introspection and eloquence, with a generous dash of pixie charm tossed in, decisively shatters the stereotypes.

When Wellesley College’s twelfth president takes the podium–a simple pants suit skimming over her trim frame–her gentle blue eyes and pleasing voice immediately warm you. But the power behind her unfolding words soon awakens another emotion: respect. For Walsh’s reach of vocabulary and turn of phrase are impressive.

“I love words and I’ve worked at my writing,” says Walsh, who will end her presidential tenure in June. “I’ve always read as a writer does, with my ears as much as my eyes, and am an intensive listener. I write all my own speeches and use them as an opportunity to grow my ideas forward.”

When Walsh was plucked in 1993 from a departmental chairmanship at Harvard School of Public Health to lead one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, she exercised these verbal gifts through speeches, op-ed pieces and interviews to, as she phrased it, “amplify the voice of the institution in the nation.”

Walsh comments on leadership: “Effective leadership comes from an inner core of integrity, and yet is not fixed or implacable. Leaders we trust are eager to hear responsible critique, knowing that differences of perspective are a crucial part of learning. In any group, the voices from the margins hold the buried wisdom that can alert us to our self-deceptions.”

On women: “We know now from real experience how much women can contribute to the world. But there is another story line. Sex-based inequality still exists; sex-based violence is a fact of life. [The majority] in our country who are poor are women. More women pursue traditional male roles, but far fewer men pursue traditional female roles. So women do more of the work … Women’s colleges are paying attention.”

And so, you find, are you. Listening to Walsh as she spotlights society’s dark corners alerts you, discomforts you. But then she’ll flash her slightly askew smile, cheeks dimpling, and you’re unexpectedly at ease, as if sharing a comfortable chat with your sister.

It is this ability to switch roles seamlessly that enables Wellesley’s amiable leader–herself a 1966 alumna–to satisfy the various constituencies who demand her attention like eager children pulling on a shared toy. A president is by turns “an educator, visionary, fundraiser, friendraiser, arbiter, problem-solver, consoler, and cajoler” says Walsh. “The variety is what makes the job interesting.” Although that variety has included hosting a potpourri of luminaries–Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Toni Morrison, Whoopi Goldberg, Hillary Clinton–it is another group that best resonates with Walsh.

“The students are my most important source of energy and inspiration,” she says. “My staff members know that if they see me looking discouraged or tired, what they need to do is get me out with students, and I’ll be renewed. It never fails … Recently, one student seemed to have something on her mind and I gently coaxed it out of her. She was [seeking] a “passion” in college, and wasn’t sure how to look for it. We had continued conversations about life and commitments and what matters. I loved it—and I think she did too.”
In turn, the students constantly absorb the wisdom Walsh imparts: how a liberal arts education will enable them to “probe the assumptions” of others while “honing, defending, and revising their own sustained arguments;” how a women’s college will allow them to “try out every possible domain of knowledge and leadership opportunity,” offering them “not equal opportunity, but every opportunity;” how “college campuses are crucibles in which struggles of the larger culture often first appear, functioning for the larger society as canaries in a mine.”

On Wellesley’s magnificent Olmsted-designed campus, banners hanging from antique lampposts proclaim, “Women who will make a difference in the world.” They remind undergraduates of the high bar set by their alumnae predecessors: the first female Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, broadcast pioneer Cokie Roberts, space-shuttle Commander Pamela Melroy, Senator Hillary Clinton—and their president, a consummate professional who has held professorships in public health at Harvard and Boston University and spearheaded research on alcohol and tobacco addiction. (Walsh has written or edited 14 books on public health topics.)

But, concurrently, they see a wife residing on Lake Waban with her husband (Harvard Medical School Professor Christopher Walsh), an intent jogger running by the water with her Springer Spaniel, a buddy hanging out with a few close friends—in short, a woman who equally values personal life.

“Any pride or pleasure my husband and I might derive from our worldly achievements,” says Walsh, “pales in comparison to the joy our daughter has brought us both.” Allison, now a physician in California, once inspired Walsh to compose a poem, addressing the career-builder versus homemaker tug-of-war many Wellesley students will one day encounter:
“When the coffee mugs are clean
The whole motley collection back in the cupboard,
We always take the “Mom” cup first.
My friend, Elaine, and I.
She’s a big-shot hospital president.
I’m a rarefied university professor.
Women of the world. Drinking from Mom cups.
I confess one day that I do.
Laughing, she does too.
Whenever they’re clean.
What can this mean?”

A child of the sixties, Walsh, who sits on the boards of Amherst College and State Street Corporation and holds four honorary doctorates, has attained the feminist ideal of “having it all.” But she’s had help. “My husband has been infinitely patient and forbearing every step of the way,” she says, “even to the point of having typed my master’s thesis after I fell off my bike and broke my hand. He spent many hours with our daughter while I was completing my Ph.D. [in health policy from Boston University]. In some ways, fatherhood is the social role that has benefited most from the impact of feminism.”

Walsh’s own father and mother—a chemical engineer and a homemaker/volunteer–maintained traditional gender roles raising their daughter in Philadelphia, but prepared her well for high-profile leadership. Through her mother’s Quaker tradition, Walsh learned the value of centering and calming herself while worshipping in silent meeting. Her education at Chestnut Hill’s Springside School, at Wellesley, and traveling the world as a Kellogg National Leadership Fellow, instilled another managerial skill she considers essential: “I emerged with an unshakable belief that, with effort, I can learn whatever I need to know. Among the deepest commitments I’ve brought to my current leadership role is that we are all here to learn—and that includes the president.”

And the president’s report card? Under Walsh’s watch, applications to Wellesley increased 42 percent; the endowment tripled to $1.4 billion; environmental, computer, and neuroscience programs expanded the curriculum; spiritual-life initiatives encompassing 13 religions coalesced; and a record-setting capital campaign produced the Wang Campus Center, honored as “the most beautiful structure built within the past decade in Greater Boston.”

Of course there have been rough patches: a defiant professor teaching from an inflammatory textbook; Hollywood filmmakers depicting a shallow-minded 1950s Wellesley; a controversial poet sparking a clash of differing student cultures by ascribing to Israel advance knowledge of 9/11.

Common to these “canaries in the mine” struggles is the issue of free speech—and just how free it ought to be. It tops Walsh’s list of imperatives.

“A president’s most important obligation is to keep the college or university open for the free exchange of ideas,” she states, nonetheless acknowledging the inherent consequences. “I think it was Carl Jung who said, ‘there is no birth of consciousness without pain.’ Some of our most painful moments have expanded our thinking the most.” Still, she has joined 300 college presidents nationwide in pledging “intimidation-free” campuses, to discourage debate from crossing over into hate.

Walsh diffuses painful moments—and enables productive ones—by fostering dialogue and consensus through cooperation. “I’m proudest of the many partnerships that have made so much possible for the college—and for me,” she says. “No one can succeed at a demanding job without extensive support and I’ve invested a lot of my energy in building and sustaining strong connections to and within the college.”

Those connections extend to the town. Walsh has opened her gracious President’s House to honor Wellesley’s public-school teachers, overseen a $30 million effort to remediate wetlands contaminated by a paint factory before college ownership of the property (“an extraordinary contribution from a private, non-profit organization to the wider community”), and welcomed town residents as class auditors. In turn, she and her husband take pleasure in the square. “I think we’ve tried every restaurant over these 14 years and have enjoyed many wonderful meals,” she says.

As her presidential days dwindle, Walsh remains unequivocal on one topic: Wellesley’s continued single-sex status. “If I were to suggest to alumnae that we go coed, my life wouldn’t be worth a plugged nickel!” she joked on an NPR interview. More seriously, she affirms, “We’re very clear that we choose to remain a women’s college—comfortable, confident, and united in our belief that to provide a great liberal education for women is to advance the cause of justice, directly and indirectly, at home and around the globe.”

And Walsh’s own future direction? “I’m going to take a long-deferred sabbatical and do some writing,” she says. “I’ve ruled out another college or university presidency. Nothing would compare to leading Wellesley.” Indeed, her farewell remarks at a campus convocation attest to impassioned feelings for her alma mater:

“The darkness around us is deep—I know we all sense this is true—but I have come to know this beautiful college as one of those magical places on earth capable of holding the light.”

Summer 2023