Diana Chapman Walsh: a college president you can admire by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s owm blog.

The Claims of Life by Diana Chapman Walsh is a deep and delightful memoir by the former president of Wellesley College, whom I met and with whom I briefly worked in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the college. A child of privilege in suburban Philadelphia and an athlete, she grew up dismissing her intellectual depth and her leadership capacity. She has spent her life and career growing, learning and achieving enormous success in both spheres.  After graduating as an English major from Wellesley (I relate to that), she worked in communications and public affairs (as did I). Her family was Quaker, but she has been anything but silent.

She moved to Boston, focusing her writing in the field of public health, eventually getting her doctorate in public health policy at Boston University. She went on to become a professor at B.U. and Harvard, proving herself in teaching, scholarly research, writing, and academic administration. With her scientist husband, Chris Walsh, she moved to the Waban section of Newton (my home village) and lived in West Newton until she was tapped to be president of Wellesley College. Chris was also a star, founding chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, the one-time head of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and chair of the chemistry department at MIT. That’s just the spine of her story.

Chapman Walsh’s rising academic career coincided with the rise of the women’s movement, tensions over gender power disparities, calls for greater diversity in student bodies and faculties, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, animosities among competing identity groups, all of which are still battled on campuses today. She is refreshingly candid about all she had to learn on the job at Wellesley, the mistakes she made, how she grew from learning more about herself, how reading and writing poetry calmed her and strengthened her spiritual side.

Equally revealing was her deep dive into the Stygian academic politics. (As Henry Kissinger is said to have quipped, “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”)  Having been a student of her era and an alum during her administration, I discovered much I never knew about the battles among the students, the administration, the deans, the faculty, the special interest groups, and all the subsets of those. Whew! Her curiosity and sense of humor helped her steer through the morass.

Having navigated all this in a contentious era, having guided Wellesley through all sorts of crises and having laid the groundwork for a 21st century school of distinction while preserving its nearly 150-year-old tradition of excellence, her tenure was a noteworthy success.

After 14 years as president, she went on to very serious work on several powerful non-profit boards, often making climate change a priority concern.  But for me, her most significant legacy remains those 14 years at the helm of Wellesley. This book will be eye-opening for anyone watching the erosion of comity at our institutions of higher education today. Clearly, this book resonated with me for personal reasons, but it should also be a primer on leadership in other spheres of human activity.

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