The Institute, which now occupies a celebrated position on campus, seems recently to have inspired the development of a similar program: Hillary Clinton’s Institute for Women in Public Service. The institutes, spearheaded by two of Wellesley’s most distinguished alumnae, aim to cultivate women for roles as global leaders, with the goal of increasing the number of women engaged in public service projects.
The problems with these institutes are not initially apparent. If the notion of cultivating women leaders for public service does not initially strike you as completely positive, the idea, at the least, sounds banal and unoffensive enough. It certainly doesn’t sound insidious.
But if Wellesley truly embraces the intellectualism that is at the core of its liberal arts identity, we must recognize and accept that we have an intellectual obligation to be skeptical of concepts that may at first appear banal. Think: global development, innovation, leadership, success, and entrepreneurship.
In an article on the inaugural session of the Albright Institute, the Spring 2010 issue of Wellesley Magazine describes the Institute as a “crucible” for women leaders; a veritable pressure-cooker that instills within the Fellows new capacities for leadership after a mere three weeks of classes. The article goes describes the final presentations of the Fellows, delivered in front of Madeleine Albright herself: “But for the Fellows, it has all come down to this moment: five Wellesley students, in their best dress-for-success outfits (heavy on the-black-suit-crisp-white-blouse look), standing in a row in Founders 120 at 9 A.M. sharp.” The article describes the Fellows as “teetering only slightly with anxiety and instability on their spike heels.”
For all of Wellesley’s rhetoric about empowering women, this anecdote is a study in compliance and conformity. Albright Fellows, motivated by the promise of a future in which they occupy prestigious global leadership positions, learn that realizing this future involves compliance with ideas of normative dress, norms of gender, and notions of professionalism. The Fellows are required to wear business-professional attire every day during their time at the Institute.
Why would the Institute require its Fellows to comply with a dress code? Because its notion of “leadership” is highly specific: one where you will be employed at an organization where you’ll have to adhere to specific rules, comply with a bureaucratic structure, and abide by a dress code. A “global leader,” for the Institute, looks like a staffer at the World Bank, the president of an NGO, an executive at the Council of Foreign Relations, or Madeleine Albright herself. The website also boasts of Wellesley’s track record of “producing leaders,” describing them as “Wellesley alumnae in prominent roles in international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others.” It is also worth noting that the Institute unabashedly idealizes Madeleine Albright; its website sycophantically praises her as embodying “the attributes we aim to foster in every Wellesley student — vision, innovation, leadership, commitment, and compassion.”
Becoming a leader, for the Albright Institute, means becoming a professional: a staff member at a prestigious institution. The article in Wellesley Magazine about the opening class of Fellows admits this, going so far as to describe the Fellows as “preparing for a professional life of grace under pressure.” Notably, this vision of leadership does not encompass the activist nor the grassroots organizer whose work involves resisting those very institutions. This vision of leadership also excludes the intellectual, whose function is to critique the premises under which these institutions operate. The Albright Institute, as it exists today, is too pre-professional to sit comfortably in a college that professes a commitment to liberal arts values.
In a blog post on Wellesley Underground, Sarah Turrin (’11) describes the “liberal arts” focus of the Institute, writing, “the Institute disorients us— it pushes us away from the comfortable assumptions of our chosen academic disciplines and pulls us into conversation with those who might challenge us.” This, undoubtedly, is a good thing; challenging your own assumptions is certainly part of the liberal arts.
And while the Institute may succeed in unseating certain assumptions, I want to argue that because the focus of the Albright Institute is to prepare the Fellows for a specific type of professional life it necessarily limits the scope of the Fellows’ questioning and intellectual inquiry. Its pre-professional emphasis creates a field of appropriate questions outside of which certain avenues of inquiry are not permitted. The inherent intellectual limitations of this pre-professional setting make it hostile to liberal arts values.
At its best, a liberal arts college should attempt to create an environment in which students are critical of institutions and comfortable with constructing arguments that unseat those institutions’ fundamental premises and assumptions. The Albright Institute encourages Fellows to create innovative, multi-disciplinary solutions to United Nations Millennium Development Goals. What it doesn’t do, and what a thriving liberal arts environment would encourage, is to ask students to engage in critiques of the United Nations, of the Millennium Development Goals, or of the paradigm of global development itself.
Critical facets of the discourse surrounding global development are, for example, noticeably absent from the 2012 session of the Institute. The lectures are missing any sustained critique of paternalism, or neo-liberalism, or how the United Nations may be complicit in the preservation of the legacy of colonialism. While some lectures do appear to unsettle assumptions about concepts in global development, such as microcredit and microfinance, other lectures – given by various CEOs and by the Dean of “Executive and Enterprise Education” from Babson — offer the Fellows advice in how to become “entrepreneurs.” What is really the difference between that and a seminar on investment banking? Both are unabashedly careerist.
But the real tension between the Albright Institute and the liberal arts emerges when you consider that a failure by pre-professional standards might count as a success by liberal arts standards. If you emerge from the Albright Institute having reasoned that you want no place in the apparatus of global development, this would represent a falling short of the expectations placed upon you as a Fellow; you might decline your summer internship and deliberately eschew the career path for which the Albright Institute attempts to prepare you. But this professional failure would be a success by intellectual standards: you would have engaged in the critique of an institution, changed your opinion based upon your reasons, and acted in accordance with that opinion.
Also if a student stated that she wanted to be a Fellow purely for the academic experience of learning about international politics and global development, but that student stated in her application that she had no interest in doing an internship, she would certainly be rejected from the program. The Institute cannot provide the academic experience it claims to while also insisting upon the primacy of the internship, instructing the Fellows to dress in professional attire, and requiring that they accept United Nations Millennium Development goals as starting premises.
The Albright Institute seems to be a natural outgrowth of Wellesley’s increasing anxiety about its own relevance, as both a women’s college and a liberal arts college, in the 21st century. Wellesley must not only justify itself as a sound investment for students in an environment where the costs of higher education are skyrocketing and jobs are scarce; it must also justify itself as a women’s college and fend off attacks about the relevance of single-sex education.
However, the way Wellesley has chosen to alleviate these anxieties is problematic for its identity as a liberal arts college. Wellesley has chosen to brand itself as an incubator – or a “laboratory,” as the Albright Institute describes itself – for women to develop the skills and confidence to succeed in a “man’s world.” While this goal might appear banal, if not laudable, to the majority of Wellesley students and alumnae, it induces a troubling temporal shift: a Wellesley education isn’t important for what happens while you experience it but for what happens after you graduate. Our motto – “women who will make a difference in the world” – emphasizes the future, who you will become, and what type of career you will have, all while pushing out of sight the true joy of academia: learning in the moment and for its own sake.
It is possible, however, to imagine an Albright Institute that isn’t in tension with a critical, intellectual spirit. If the Albright Institute offered alternatives to the internship — maybe if it allowed students to write papers or perform independent research instead – it would feel much less hostile to liberal arts values. It also goes without saying that a less pre-professional Albright Institute need not require Fellows to adopt a blatantly professional dress code, such as the “dress for success” uniforms of the inaugural class of Fellows. The Institute could also reject the United Nations Millennium Development Goals as starting premises, or at least build rigorous critiques of those goals — and of the United Nations itself — into the curriculum of the Institute. I might also include seminars that were more critical of global development itself, perhaps offering some discussion of the problems with neoliberalism and paternalism, and possibly introducing some critiques of capitalism.
Would this revised Albright Institute get funding? I’m not sure. However, what I am certain about is that if Wellesley has not completely lost sight of its identity as a liberal arts institution, we need to end our sycophantic praise of the Albright Institute and reconsider whether the Institute, as it exists today, is truly in alignment with Wellesley’s intellectual values.
-Hailey Huget ‘10