On Gratitude

November 24, 2014

Those of you who follow my writings closely (if you’ll indulge me in imagining that) will have seen this message in your inboxes and thought: aha! he’s repeating himself. Six months ago, nearly to the day, I addressed the Yale College Class of 2014 from the stage at Woolsey Hall, sharing my reflections “On Gratitude.” You can read that speech online, and I won’t repeat it here. But some recent experiences have made me think back on that day, and on one point in particular: the knitting-together of communities that comes through a shared sense of appreciation. This seems especially apropos as we approach Thanksgiving, a day devoted to the simple acts of feeling and expressing gratitude.

Today, I am thinking not just of six months ago or even six years ago, but of forty-six years ago. It was in November 1968 that Yale announced it would admit women undergraduates. The move to coeducation is a moment in Yale’s history for which all of us can feel thankful.

This historic moment was very much on my mind three weeks ago, when I had the privilege of taking part in a conference co-organized by YaleWomen and the Women Faculty Forum on the topic of gender equity at Yale today. As I said to the group of women—and men—assembled that day, we have made progress, but there is more still to be done. I am grateful that so many of you dedicate yourselves to this effort in ways large and small every day.

Which brings me to one person whose outsized contributions deserve a special note of recognition and thanks. For many in our community, Elga Wasserman ’76 J.D.—who passed away earlier this month—needs no introduction, but for those who may be less familiar with the quiet yet profound impact she had on the university, I want to share a few words of background. (For more information, you can read her YaleNews obituary.) Elga came to Yale as a faculty spouse—her husband Harry was a longtime member of the Chemistry Department. Elga, who was also a chemist, became an assistant dean in the Graduate School, with responsibility for the physical and biological sciences. In 1969, with coeducation on the near horizon, she was appointed by President Kingman Brewster to carry out much of the transition for the first classes of women in Yale College. It is no exaggeration to say that she paved the way for generations of Yale women. Forty-five years on, we feel her loss profoundly, but we also know that, forty-five years into the future, the university will still be grateful for all she contributed to Yale’s excellence and accessibility.