By all accounts and virtually any measure, Diane Chapman Walsh’s 14-year term as President of Wellesley College, the country’s leading liberal arts college for women, has been brilliantly successful.
A slight, sandy-haired, quiet 63-year old dynamo, Diana led her alma mater’s record-setting five-year $472 million capital campaign; oversaw the enrichment and revision of the curriculum; developed new centers for religious and spiritual life, media and technology, social sciences, and the humanities; reclaimed the once famed campus landscape; and built the school’s first campus center, a brazenly iconic architectural statement that reflects at once a renewed commitment to the whole of student life and the school’s necessarily expanding role into what she calls “these perilous times.”
Her leadership has been visionary, collaborative, deliberative, excruciatingly well-planned and thought out, energetic and relentless. Even this past year, she executed a politically complex document outlining the challenges inherent in the 2015 plan Wellesley’s trustees adopted last year -- to better prepare her successor. If she has been unusually able to prepare herself and the college for her leave-taking it is because, she says, of the exhaustive way she made her decision about when and how to leave. The process began once she “heard” the invitation to the “reinvention and discovery” she believes a good life requires, once she determined she wanted to do something else. Even when she had no idea what that something else might be.
No idea. Really. None. Not a clue. In fact she admits she sometimes still feels like the seniors she addressed at their commencement this past June – as if she’s making her way to the edge of a cliff and will fall off into a great unknown when she leaves the campus June 30.
While her leaving Wellesley follows what the former public health professor from Harvard calls a logical arc created by the essential centrality of the capital campaign, Diana didn’t have to leave. She was happy at Wellesley, and she was beloved. The trustees had made it very clear they would gratefully extend her contract and that she was welcome to retire from Wellesley. She didn’t have to leave -- except in response to her deepest inner voice, which seemed to be calling her inexorably to something new. She listened to it. She exercised discernment and life-long Quaker practices until she was certain it was time to go. The process didn’t reveal where she will go – there simply wasn’t time with all that she still felt responsible for at Wellesley -- but when she leaves the presidency, she will use her long-deferred sabbatical to go away and figure out where she’s going and who she’s going to be.
She’s very much at peace with the process. But it bothers other people who want to know – indeed, *demand* to know -- what she’s going to do as much because of what it says to them about their own third thirds as because of Diana herself. What is this developmental stage of life supposed to look like if you’re bright, healthy, educated, ambitious, accomplished, thoughtful, loving, caring, and sensitive to the world you will, one day, leave to your children and grandchildren? If Diana isn’t telling us, who will?
At the moment, Diana has other issues. She has been so inextricably bound to Wellesley throughout her term, so defined by the College and the trappings of the presidency, so very aware of all the expectations imposed upon her as leader and role model, that even ordinary choices can confound her as she inches toward a new identity. After 14 years with a college car and drivers, what kind of car should she buy herself? Something responsible, like a Prius, or something more liberating, more fun? What kind of calendar does she need? (She confesses to paralysis in the Staples store, and absolute ignorance about her personal cell phone.) Following her residency in the President’s House, with the President’s chef, how will she find her way around a supermarket?
Some of the larger questions are more difficult. There’s the job thing – does she really need a bigger office, more responsibility, a larger budget and paycheck? What does her husband, Chris, a Harvard Medical School professor, expect? Will she disappoint the trustees and alumnae if she doesn’t do something high-profile, something that reflects positively on Wellesley?
And then there are the really big, really tough questions, the ones she knows matter most. After growing so much, indeed, expanding into her role as President of Wellesley with such extraordinary grace and energy that a transformed Wellesley grew right along with her into its newly expanded role in the world, what if the next phase of her life is all about contracting instead, contracting down to. . . nothingness . . . and to death?
“That’s my fear,” says Diana.
If it’s possible, she grows even more thoughtful. “Some piece of the third third has to be about how you die.” She has lost dear friends who made dying a gift of awareness and love; when it’s time, she’d like to have that grace. And yet, she’s clearly not ready for it to be time. “I’ve always been such a magical thinker.” Active, healthy, and energetic, she says she rarely stops to think, “How many good years do I really have?”
She shakes off these morbid thoughts and admits a final faculty crisis has clouded her normal optimism.
“The challenge,” she suggests, “is to have it – the third third -- be a whole new opening – in different terms -- a completely different way of thinking about expansion.” That’s why she won’t jump to head the next big, prestigious organization or institution that comes calling; it would be just more of the same. She will instead work carefully, thoughtfully, deliberatively, to make a purposeful and creative decision.
Does she have any role models for this transition – women she finds have done it well?
“That’s a good question,” she concedes. “Madeleine Albright, I think, might be one. She’s very much in the world. She’s put together a group of people she most enjoys. The Albright Group. They’re doing the things they most want to do. She’s written a couple of books she wanted to write. And she’s mentoring young people. She’s doing a wonderful job.”
Her thoughts return to Wellesley and her surprise and delight at all the many ways the College community has expressed its gratitude for her service. She speaks of students on the last day of classes thronging her with their cell phones and digital cameras, taking final pictures “with the President” and thanking her for taking care of Wellesley. She has learned to respond with a final charge to them.
I have been holding the school in trust and I’m handing it back now, she tells them. “Take care of it. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t blow it. This is a perilous time.”
As has often been the case, Diana Chapman Walsh is probably teaching what she’s learned, guiding the people and the institution to grow in their roles as she has grown in hers. These words, after all, hold true to her philosophy about her third third as well: “Take care of it. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t blow it. This is a perilous time.”
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