Monday, February 19, 2024

Q&A with Diana Chapman Walsh




Diana Chapman Walsh is the author of the new memoir The Claims of Life. She is President Emerita of Wellesley College.


Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?


A: First of all, Deborah, I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in your book blog. Thanks very much for inviting me.


There is more than one answer this initial question.


The first relates to personal motivation, and it goes back a long way. I was always a writer, as far back as I can remember.


When I was 12, I wrote a mini-novel and my sister, aged 10 at the time and an avid reader, cheered me on. I felt like Dickens turning out installments for a hungry Victorian audience. She and I moved on to other pursuits.


But I continued to write my way through my life – as I bet many of your readers are doing. I wrote in journals and later in a great variety of academic and policy publications, a few books, hundreds of speeches, even a little poetry.


Yet I always had a dream that one day I might write a “beautiful book” that came as much from my heart as from my head. It was this desire that would surface on occasion when I’d be at a retreat and be prompted to consider what one thing I would most regret on my death bed if I didn’t get on with it.


So this book is the fulfillment for me of a deep desire.


A second reason for writing the book relates to what I hoped readers might find of value in my experiences leading a liberal arts college for 14 years.


From the outset, I wanted to offer a front row seat in the American academy, a place where I learned that everyone wants a voice, and no one wants a boss.


I wanted readers to take away a deeper appreciation of a distinctive type of American institution that has a major role to play in our democracy – in the future as it has in the past.


Like our nation, these colleges are never without their messy quarrels – as we have witnessed recently – nor are they free of flaws.


But they work at working. They adapt, assemble diverse voices to reason together, bend mind and heart to that work, and insist on mutual respect. Open minds and open hearts, as the Dalai Lama likes to say. A way forward, it seems to me.


Could it be our best path at a perilous time on our planet? I wonder about that and hope my readers will as well.


Q: Cullen Murphy, editor at large of The Atlantic, said of the book, “At once practical and poetic, inquisitive and deeply personal, Diana Walsh’s memoir invites us into the life of one of America's great educators—and offers a field manual for effective leadership in an era of social division and institutional mistrust.” What do you think of that description?

A: I’m glad you quoted that beautiful endorsement. Naturally, I was delighted when I read it, touched and honored.


Cullen Murphy is a prolific and exquisite writer and a distinguished editor who himself writes books and articles that are “at once practical and poetic.” He knows the territory.


Those two descriptors of my memoir and the two that follow – “inquisitive and deeply personal” – especially pleased me. As I said, I’ve always been a writer, and as I believe is often true of our breed, I’m prone to turn to writing when I am wrestling my demons.


There’s a lot of interiority in the book and some have asked whether I worried about “exposing myself” in that way. Occasionally I did, but I knew I had to be open with my readers if they were to find me trustworthy and to care about my story.


And that meant I had to be transparent about my moments of self-doubt, to give an honest account of how I learned, in the heat of a demanding job, to tame my inner voices and to “lead from within.”


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book, and how was its title chosen?


A: I’ll begin with the title because it’s the more straightforward answer to this two-part question.


I took the title from a book by a writer I have long admired, John Gardner, an architect of the Great Society as Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of what was then the Department of Health Education and Welfare, founder of Common Cause and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting among many accomplishments.


He wrote several books on the state of society, many still relevant today. His 1964 book, Self-Renewal, argues that societies and organizations can thrive “only if someone cares. Apathy and lowered motivation are the most widely noted characteristics of a civilization in decline.”


He defines individual self-renewal as “an endless and unpredictable conversation between our potentialities and the claims of life, not only the claims we encounter, but also the ones we invent.” This struck me as a useful lens through which to look back on my life.


The impact of the writing of the book is a longer story, and a poignant one. It had a long gestation and went through several quite different iterations.


When I first left the presidency of Wellesley College in 2007, I began writing it and then put it aside as other opportunities opened up to me. But I worked on it off and on through those years and had a complete manuscript by the time Covid came.


My husband, a scientist who has been called a “towering figure in biochemistry,” was busy writing massive monographs day and night while we were sheltering at home.


Whether out of competition or self-defense, I buckled down to finish my memoir and, as I did so, it morphed into the story not only of my life but of our two lives together.


I moved a chapter that had been in the middle of the book to the front as the opening. I am sitting at his bedside as he is about to be wheeled to the OR for a quintuple bypass operation.


It is Commencement weekend at Wellesley, and I am shuttling back and forth from the hospital to the college, my heart in my throat at the prospect that he might not survive. That was the year 2000 and he fully recovered.


But as The Claims of Life was going into final production, he had a freak accident, a fall on the stairs at the home of friends. He was rushed to the ER and died a week later, without regaining consciousness.


I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, but we lived our story together as I rewrote The Claims of Life. He read every chapter, loved the book, believed in it. As he always believed in me.


Q: I’m so sorry for your loss…


And what are you working on now?


A: I spend much of my time now on the rapidly escalating climate emergency. A decade ago, two friends and I co-founded an organization called the Council on the Uncertain Future. I write about it in the final chapter of my book.


Our work is described on a website at this link: and on the MIT Climate Portal:


Right now we are launching new “threshold councils” for groups of educators who want to explore how higher education has failed to address the root issues behind the climate crisis and how, now, we can bring what students most need as they face the harsh realities of the future we are bequeathing them.


How do we support them in creating communities of deep discernment and mutual support, places to which they can return with their fears and grief, and can continue to find in the bonds of community their human capacities for hope, love, and joy.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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