Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2006
For me, the past nine months have been ones of intense, and deeply satisfying, engagement with Smith alumnae. In living rooms and boardrooms, in groups ranging from a dozen to forty women, alumnae have shared powerful reflections on the effects of their education and their hopes for Smith today. Their questions to me are important reminders of their ongoing investment in the college; I want to share—and respond to—some of the questions alumnae frequently ask.
In different ways, alumnae often ask about life in the houses and house traditions—especially those involving dining. Throughout the recent process of dining reconfiguration, we paid close attention to the importance of Friday tea and other traditions in fostering community among house residents. While most houses still gather for tea at four on Fridays, others have found new ways to come together as a house community. Some have shifted the time for tea, so that athletes and other residents with late practices don't miss out. Haven/Wesley has a regular Sunday night study break, with tea and snacks provided by Dining Services. Every Thursday evening, Comstock residents choose a different house in which to eat as a group, after looking online to compare the menus. The Sophian often carries "restaurant reviews" of different dining rooms' offerings.
Alumnae also recall, quite vividly, the inspiration of living in a community of fiercely intelligent women and they want to know whether Smith students today are as smart as they used to be. They are—absolutely—and a number of outside indicators affirm that. This fall, Smith was named the top producer of Fulbright Fellows in the country among bachelor's institutions. With fourteen awards, Smith ranks first on a list of thirty-one esteemed institutions, ahead of such notables as Wellesley and Williams. With reference to science, a recent National Science Foundation report listed Smith as a preeminent source of women graduates who go on to earn Ph.D.s in the sciences.
The issue of college rankings comes up fairly often, as it does for most college presidents. While I am critical of college rankings as an industry, I am mindful of the factors that inform such surveys as that of U.S. News & World Report. Our ranking this year was affected by four factors—a higher acceptance rate in the year surveyed; a slight decrease in the graduation rate; no increase in the percentage of alumnae giving; and a slight increase in the number of classes between the size of nineteen and thirty students, a factor that isn't necessarily defensible pedagogically (is a class of twenty less valuable than one of nineteen?) but that weighs heavily. Some of these issues are legitimate campus concerns and we are considering them. It's notable that Smith's academic quality measure in the U.S. News survey, as perceived by college leaders across the country, remains high and unchanged.
With regard to academics, I am often asked whether the so-called traditional liberal arts are taking a back seat to science and engineering. Smith students continue to major in approximately equal numbers in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The five most popular majors are government, psychology, art, economics, and English. The success of our new engineering program in recruiting students and faculty owes a great deal to its identity within—not apart from—Smith's traditional liberal arts curriculum. The synergies among engineering, the sciences, and the visual and performing arts are areas of natural growth and distinction for a college with such a rich legacy in the arts and humanities.
Alumnae often express chagrin when they encounter media images of Smith, identifying the college with a lesbian culture, and frequently ask me about them. Such images are often false and distorted, the reflection, I believe, of societal discomfort and prejudice. Few aspects of contemporary culture have changed more radically in the last several decades than attitudes toward sexual identity. Among the results of this social revolution is a far greater openness about sexual orientation and behavior, both heterosexual and homosexual. The situation at Smith in this regard is not significantly different than it is at other colleges and universities. I personally feel that the openness about sexual identity that characterizes the culture of many of our colleges today is a good thing. Students at Smith, whatever their sexual identity, are diverse, accomplished, and various in their views. When I walk in to teach my class, I can't begin to determine the sexual orientation of the students around the seminar table—nor do I want to. I care that my students are intelligent, serious, and engaged. And they are.
Teaching gives me an immediate and ever-changing window on student life, and I draw on that when alumnae ask, as they often do, what today's Smith students are like. Coming from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and cultural contexts, they are, in many respects, a more diverse group than any of us experienced as undergraduates. At the same time, as their predecessors did, they bring enormous strengths of intellect and engagement to the campus and, upon graduation, take those qualities forward into the world. One alumna describes Smith today as the Smith of her aspirations; I am confident that those of you who engage with today's students would agree.