Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2008
At Ivy Day 2008, I was surprised and moved to receive a marvelous gift to Smith. The class of 1958, after extensive research, presented the college with a facsimile of Sophia Smith's last will and testament, as set out in 1870 in her own hand. While the transcribed words have long been known, it was extraordinarily moving to read, in Sophia's own resolute and straightforward hand, her vision for the college that would be "a perennial blessing to the country and the world."
With that will, and a bequest of $400,000 realized upon Sophia's death, the remarkable institution that is Smith College was founded. An 1877 Scribner's Monthly article commended the first trustees' adherence to Sophia's fiscal stipulations, which directed that while half of her $400,000 bequest could be spent on buildings and grounds "the remainder was to be invested as a permanent fund for furnishing teachers, library and apparatus, and for the general purposes of the institution." This endowment, Scribner's noted, enabled Smith "to offer to rich and poor alike, a superior education, at a sum far below its actual cost."
The significance of endowment funds was abundantly clear to Smith's second president, Marion LeRoy Burton, who helped the college raise the amazing sum of $1 million—a hugely ambitious endowment campaign for any college at that time. The increased endowment enabled Burton to address two issues central to educational quality: faculty salaries and the faculty-to-student ratio.
In contemporary public discussions of college and university endowments, history and context often recede. If financial markets appear to be heading toward a correction, colleges are exhorted to curb endowment spending, as a hedge against potentially leaner times. Conversely, following periods of growth, sentiment tends toward greater regulation, mandatory spending and even taxation of endowment assets, proposals that have received attention in the media in recent years.
Over the last decade, Smith's endowment has essentially doubled, standing at $1.4 billion. Generous gifts from alumnae and other supporters have accounted for $144 million of the overall growth, while the remainder has resulted from strong investment management. To adapt Sophia's phrase, Smith is undeniably "blessed."
And yet, to realize our dual commitments of excellence and access, we must consider the college's endowment in context of our relatively large student body (2,800) and its singular mission. While Smith's endowment per student of $439,000 is relatively strong, ranking eleventh among liberal arts colleges, it is less than half of the endowment per student at each of the top five wealthiest colleges and $300,000 less than Wellesley. This gap presents challenges for us as we compete directly with these colleges and others for students, faculty, facilities, and new initiatives.
Today, income from Smith's endowment provides fully one-third of the college's operating budget. It is a critical funding stream that allows Smith to offer scholarships to all admitted students with financial need, to shape the faculty to meet longstanding and emerging curricular objectives, to maintain and expand campus facilities, to develop new initiatives such as the Picker Engineering Program that respond to urgent societal needs, and to keep pace with the technological developments integral to teaching and learning today.
An endowment is not, as some have claimed, a war chest. Nor is it a rainy-day fund, to be tapped when budgets get tight. Rather, it is a commitment, through flush times and lean, to institutional mission and history. As Harvard President Drew Faust noted, "Endowments represent a concrete embodiment of our accountability to the past and to the future. They derive from our history and the dreams of those who have preceded us; they are in turn the vehicle that enables us to project our own dreams into the future."
"Perennial"—enduring, lasting, perpetual—was the descriptor Sophia used in envisioning Smith, and her handwriting suggests a person who chose her words with conviction. Smith was founded on the belief that women deserved an education equal to that available to men—a bold experiment in excellence and opportunity that continues to resonate today. Smith intends to remain compelling and accessible to the brightest women in the world—and to manifest that commitment through strong management and growth of its endowment.