Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2009
As a scholar of Victorian literature, I was delighted when an alumna recently quoted me the financial advice expressed by Charles Dickens’ Wilkins Micawber, the debt-plagued yet hopeful clerk whose journey is so vividly central to the lessons of David Copperfield:
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
As Dickens enthusiasts know, despite his pragmatic aphorisms, Micawber is famous for his faith that “something will turn up.” And while Dickens’ novels of economic hardship and financial malfeasance are finding a renewed readership in these difficult times, I know of no college relying on faith that their current ways of doing business can be restored when the stock market eventually “turns up.”
Indeed, even absent the present -- and significant -- financial downturn, even if our endowment magically returned to former levels, Smith and its peer institutions must confront the long-term limits of our educational model: the rising cost for students and families of a small, residential college education; a highly competitive admissions environment; and a commitment to educational access that requires rapidly increasing resources for financial aid. For all of higher education today, but particularly for small residential colleges like Smith, the financial situation has brought into sharp focus the urgency of finding new ways to deliver the excellent education for which we are known.
As I write this column, Smith is approaching the culmination of a year of intensive financial planning, focused not only on reducing the college’s annual operating budget by $30 million or 15 percent but on securing a position of excellence and distinction well into the coming decades. Our task, as a community, has been to reconcile our high aspirations with the financial realities of a new era. As Board of Trustees Chair Cornelia Mendenhall Small ’66 puts it, “Smith needs to be on the crest of the wave, not under the water.”
The students, faculty and staff on the planning committee faced challenging choices in recommending cost-saving strategies to meet present-day financial declines while, in the longer view, assuring Smith’s strength, resilience and bright future. That balancing act is, in essence, the key to managing a college like ours -- and, not incidentally, its endowment: to ensure that coming generations of students can benefit from the same exceptional education available to Smith students today. To that end, I am proud that the plan maintains our foundational commitment to meeting students’ full demonstrated financial need, ensuring that high-achieving young women from all backgrounds will continue to have the benefit of a Smith education.
The plan extends well beyond the 20 committee members whose recommendations and counsel informed it. It is also the product of extensive feedback from students, faculty and staff, expressed in more than a dozen campus forums over the fall and spring semester and through more than 1,000 suggestions and comments posted on my Web site. Alumnae and parents participated as well, responding to my update letters and offering perspective and suggestions from their own realms of experience and professional expertise. I am grateful for the thoughtful ways in which the Smith community has engaged with this process, even while, in many cases, confronting new financial realities in their own lives.
A budget plan is not a vision but an essential foundation for one. By assuring the college’s financial resilience we are opening the door for the very important conversations we need to have about Smith’s role in making excellent private liberal arts education more economically and pedagogically sustainable. And we are ensuring the centrality of the curricular initiatives presented in The Smith Design for Learning.
In the coming years you are likely to see Smith take a leadership position in forming cooperative, strategic alliances with other institutions, whether among the Five Colleges, other study abroad providers, or universities around the world who can offer students opportunities to develop their capacities for leadership in different global contexts. Some of this cooperation will take the form of less visible but critically important operational consolidation in areas such as information technology services, coordinated purchasing of electronic and traditional library acquisitions and exposure to career development opportunities. We will develop new and flexible options for students in all fields who seek an international experience as part of their Smith education. And we will take advantage of the growing capacities of online communication, including social networking and other new media resources, to enhance dialogue with alumnae and prospective students, bringing the story of Smith today more immediately and vividly into their -- your -- lives.
Even as we tighten our belt, planning for a smaller staff and, through retirements and resignations, a somewhat smaller faculty, we continue to enhance the curriculum by developing academic programs that capitalize on our existing distinctive resources. A new concentration in Archives combines course work, internships, and independent research in the Sophia Smith College and College Archives to help students develop understanding the use and professional management of the records of our collective past. Similarly, the new Museums Concentration, for which the Smith College Museum of Art will serve as a focal point, will give students a foundation in the history and administration of museums and the critical issues they face as repositories of material culture. A faculty and staff task force will meet this summer to recommend other new offerings, at the undergraduate and pre-professional level, focusing on those with the potential to generate new revenue streams and bring new populations to Smith year-round.
This spring, we admitted a spectacular class, selected from the largest pool of applications in Smith’s history. We welcomed back to campus a record-breaking number of alumnae for Reunion 2009. In these moments, I see Smith through the eyes of the past, present and future, as an institution that has met past challenges with creativity and common purpose, continued to invest in its faculty and staff, thoughtfully developed its academic resources and facilities -- including Ford Hall, whose opening we will celebrate next fall -- all in service of providing an extraordinary and transformative education. This is where we rightly place our faith -- in Smith’s demonstrated ability to renew itself and to meet women’s educational needs as they evolve over time. An alumna from the class of 1963 put it best: “Rock on, Smith College,” she wrote earlier this year. “You gave me the gift of resiliency and I see you are still giving the gift.”