A weekend interview with ...
... H. Kim Bottomly, the new president of Wellesley College. On Monday, the Wellesley Clubs of Sarasota and Tampa Bay will host Bottomly for a talk, "Wellesley College Today and Tomorrow." Bottomly, an immunobiologist and past deputy provost at Yale University, will touch on matters similar to those facing Florida's public and private colleges and universities. She spoke with higher education reporter Donna Winchester.
Is your upcoming trip to Florida one in a series of trips you’re making to visit alumnae?
Yes. I do that fairly regularly. In the spring I will go to California. Each year I go to a couple of locations. It’s actually one of the fun parts of my job. One of the things that amazes me is that alums are everywhere. Almost everywhere I go, I bump into one.
I understand that Wellesley attracts students from 45 states as well as 42 countries. What percent of your students come from Southern states, and in particular, from Florida?
We have about 2,200 students. A little less than 10 percent come from the South, and 64 or so come from Florida.
Why do you think there are so few single sex colleges in this area? Is it simply because the Northeast is more traditional?
Actually, there are quite a number of good all-women’s schools in the south. There’s Agnes Scott College in Georgia and Spelman, of course, in Atlanta. Sweet Briar College is in Virginia. I think people think of all-women colleges as being only in the Northeast, because historically, a lot of women’s colleges sprung up there in the 1870s. But there are good all-women colleges everywhere.
Wellesley was founded in 1870. Do you think it would be possible for an all women’s college to open and flourish today?
I actually think it would be difficult for any college to open today given the economic environment. I don’t think it would be necessarily more difficult for an all-women’s college. Women’s colleges really have been flourishing. As long as there are women who want to get the best educational preparation for success in life, I think there will be a demand for all-women’s colleges.
But do you think that’s because those colleges are for women only, or is it because those colleges are high-caliber schools?
I would answer that in three ways. Most of the time, women choose Wellesley because it’s a good liberal arts college. They don’t necessarily choose it because it’s a women’s college. But once they get here, they’re so glad they chose a women’s college. That has to do with the effects a woman’s college has on women, particularly the leadership opportunities that women have. If you look at the leadership positions in a co-educational school, they’re pretty well dominated by men. At Wellesley and Smith and other women’s colleges, all the student leadership positions go to women. The third reason is that students are starting to select schools based on what they see in the alumnae body. They’re asking, ‘What kind of people are graduating from this college?’
Who would you say are your top five alumnae?
Of course the most famous of all is Hillary Clinton. There is Madelyn Allbright, a former secretary of state. The woman who wrote America the Beautiful , Katharine Lee Bates, is a Wellesley graduate. Pam Melroy, Class of ’83, was the first woman commander of a space shuttle. There was Madam Chiang Kai-Shek, and several newscasters, including Diane Sawyer and Cokie Roberts.
The number of applications to Wellesley has steadily increased over the years, from just under 2,000 in 1970 to just over 3,000 in 2000. The school received about 4,100 applications for the current academic year. What would you say are the main reasons why Wellesley is attractive to students?
If you step back and ask, ‘What is it that Wellesley does well?’ one answer is that it’s not a passive learning environment. Students don’t come here, learn material, and take exams. It’s really a give-and-take between the faculty and the students in a very active way. I think the other really important thing is that we invest in women because we believe in them. We value what they bring to the table. Not surprisingly, they come here because they know we care about their professional development and their intellectual growth.
Some critics might assume that an all-women’s college would no longer be relevant in the 21st century. Would that be an incorrect supposition?
Yes. There is a different set of problems today than there was in the 1800s. It was important then just to get women educated. Once you get to the 20th century, what you find is that women needed single sex colleges to help them become the workplace pioneers. You had to have those women who could fight the barriers and make it to the top of the professional ladder. In the 21st century, women will be 50 percent of the workforce. We need those women to be broadly knowledgeable.
What other stereotypes are there about Wellesley, or about women’s colleges in general, that you would like the public to know are simply not correct?
One of the common stereotypes is that Wellesley is an isolated environment where there are no men. But we have sort of a consortium of schools in the local area that we cross register with. Students from MIT come here and our students go there. Brandies University is another school, as is Babson, a business school in the local area, and Olin College of Engineering. Not only do Wellesley students go to these schools, but we have a lot of men from those schools who come to Wellesley.
So then what is it that makes it a women’s college?
I think the women feel they have ownership of the college. The men come to class and they enjoy that, but the women are still the majority in the class. Students say they’re more empowered to speak up when they go to MIT or Olin or Brandeis. They notice that the women in those co-ed schools don’t speak up as much as they do. They notice that they’re gaining something that their counterparts are not. Another myth has to do with the social life.
I always say to the new students, ‘You’re in Boston. You have this beautiful campus filled with bright, engaging young women. You’ll see young men here all the time.’ One stereotype which does bear out is that women apply to Wellesley because they value their intellectual growth. They like being surrounded by other smart women. They enjoy having friends who are like them, and knowing that being smart is cool.