Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2012
By all measures, the class that will enter Smith this fall—the class of 2016—was admitted after a highly competitive process that resulted in an admit rate of just 40 percent, making this the most selective admission year in the college’s history. This is a justifiable point of pride, as more and more young women seek out the type of exceptional global education that Smith provides.
Yet at the same time, Smith and other institutions are being questioned about the quality and capacities of the student body and the value of diversity. These concerns are not new to me or to many of my fellow presidents of selective institutions. Nor are they specific to this moment in history. One of the most striking documents I read in my early days as Smith’s president, as I sought to understand how our history informs our current values, was a letter written by President William Allan Neilson in response to an alumna upset by the number of Jewish students on campus in the 1930s. Neilson made no concessions to the letter-writer’s prejudice; he instead expressed, in an unyielding tone, his regret that her Smith education seemed to have failed her.
Today, such prejudice is, thankfully, not widely tolerated, and counteractions to it are much more readily mobilized—as demonstrated when Smith students and alumnae recently took to the Internet and various social media to launch an impassioned response to a challenge to the value of diversity at Smith. Posting smiling and confident self-portraits, many of which included pearl necklaces and cashmere sweaters (a reappropriation of symbols from another era), they shared proud, lyrical statements of identity:
A Chinese student pursuing graduate studies at Smith wrote me directly to add her voice. “I am not from a wealthy white race family,” she said. “I appreciated this opportunity for me to come to America and do my research. In my interaction with professors here, I constructed a new ‘me,’ in this short 6 months, I changed from an unconfident young Chinese women student to an international researcher, and I enjoyed the atmosphere Smith supplied, I made huge progress in my research and my identity development. I couldn't thank you enough for making Smith as it is today.”
These words, unprompted and bracingly honest, offer both a compelling response to prejudice and a convincing argument for the educational value of understanding and accepting differences and living in a diverse academic community. As one alumna observed: “In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy said, ‘There are as many ways to love as there are hearts.’ Smith taught me there are as many ways to learn as there are minds.”
One of the claims mounted against cultural and economic diversity in higher education is that students who come from families or cultures without philanthropic means or traditions won’t step forward to support their institutions after they graduate. There is little evidence to this claim, but there is direct evidence that assailing someone’s right to an education can spur a philanthropic impulse with remarkable efficacy. Consider the twenty-five unsolicited gifts to the college that came from current students, parents, and alumnae from the classes of 1969 to 2011 in response to the public attention to diversity this spring. In a note accompanying one of the gifts, a donor wrote, “[I am] donating for the first time to explicitly value the way that my experience at Smith was made better by other students benefiting from scholarships.”
There are moments in the life of a community when values are challenged and, under duress, reaffirmed. This spring brought one of those moments. We have miles to go, as a society and a college, to realize the ideals of diversity. But it’s clear to me that Smithies are primed for the journey—and leading the way.