Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2005
Smith alumnae continue to amaze me. As president of Smith, I'd like to think their remarkable achievements are the result of our outstanding curriculum—and, in truth, many of them are—but equally important, I've come to realize, are the habits of inquiry and qualities of mind that reach far beyond what any single course or major could confer.
In the course of a recent week, my travels for the college led me to a world-renowned neuroscientist who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in her seventh decade; a history major and educator who, with her husband, founded a highly successful manufacturing company; and a rising star in the emerging field of bioinformatics. Each has a rich story leading to and from her time at Smith.
When meeting women like these, I often ask two questions: What are the most powerful ways in which your Smith experience has influenced your life and work? And, what do you believe are the most important things for the college to teach its students today? I have learned a great deal from these conversations, not only about what Smith was like across the decades of its history but also about what from your college experience stays with you.
As a lifelong academic and educator, I've been fascinated to compare what faculty members think they teach with what alumnae say they learned. Faculty think about the curriculum primarily in terms of content; alumnae speak primarily in terms of what I consider capacities—leadership, critical thinking, self-confidence, intellectual curiosity, aesthetic appreciation.
I don't mean to diminish the value of content, but the ways in which alumnae describe the shaping influence of Smith have given me much food for thought. I have concluded that colleges must consider not only the subject matter they teach but also the capacities they seek to develop—the powers of mind and imagination with which our graduates will understand and build their lives.
Conversations about these issues could not be more timely. Last year, we completed the comprehensive campaign, "This is about Smith," which raised almost $400 million for the college, including $100 million in scholarships. The buildings and programs that these gifts made possible have transformed the college. Just to list them gives a sense of their magnitude and impact: the Brown Fine Arts Center, the expansion and renovation of the Lyman Conservatory, the Olin Fitness Center, the Campus Center, the Poetry Center, the Landscape Studies Program, the Kahn Institute for the Liberal Arts, the Center for Women and Financial Independence, the Praxis program, and, of course, the Picker Engineering Program. I thank all of the alumnae whose generosity has enabled us to strengthen the college in such significant ways.
With the comprehensive campaign complete, we are now in the early stages of preparing for our decennial accreditation review. For the past eighteen months, the faculty has been engaged in a comprehensive review of the entire curriculum. Because of the age profile of our faculty, we anticipate that half of the faculty will retire in the next ten years—a change that presents both a challenge and an opportunity. We are therefore reviewing the curriculum as a whole, seeking to identify Smith's distinctive strengths and opportunities and asking what capacities we should seek to develop in all of our students. The education of girls and women is a focus of growing global concern, and Smith's history and resources suggest we should play a leading role, serving to model the best that women's education can be.
For all the reasons I have described above, the time is ripe for strategic planning. I want you to join in this endeavor. I am therefore launching a national conversation about the future of the college. I want you to tell me, from the perspective both of your reflections upon Smith and of your experience in the contemporary world, what you believe are the most important capacities to develop in our students. From your point of view, how can we best prepare our students for rewarding and contributing lives in the twenty-first century?
In the next year, I will be traveling around the country and abroad, holding conversations in many cities, both in small groups and in larger ones, to hear your reflections and ideas. I will also have a Web page where you can share your thoughts in writing. I know from experience that your insights will be bold and generous, mindful of tradition yet tied to contemporary experience. I look forward to engaging with you about the future of your college and the tremendous potential it holds for women today.