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‘How Are We Ever Going to Leave This Place?’

News of Note

President Kathleen McCartney forged a powerful legacy of access, innovation, inclusion, and community


Published June 5, 2023

On a warm spring afternoon in early April,  President Kathleen McCartney is in her office on the second floor of College Hall sharing stories about a few of the most important people in her life—her grandchildren. Photographs of each of them line a bookshelf behind her desk. In one, Callie Rose and Viola—both will be 4 years old this summer—are grinning from ear to ear.

 “These photos represent joy personified,” McCartney says. “My daughters had babies one month apart. Can you believe it?” Then there’s her only grandson William, 7, as well as Charlotte (Charlie), 6, from Seattle, and Tessa, the oldest at 8. “Tessa recently came with me to a Smith basketball game,” McCartney says. “Afterward, she said to me, ‘I don’t want you to retire,’ and I said, ‘But why not? I’ll get to see more of you.’ And she said, ‘But I want to go to Smith, and I want you to be the president when I go.’”

Despite her granddaughter’s heartfelt pleading, McCartney is sticking to her decision to retire on June 30 after a decade on the job. “It’s the right time,” she says. “I believe that institutions need to evolve, and new leadership will bring a fresh perspective.”

McCartney, a developmental psychologist by training, arrived at Smith in the summer of 2013 promising change—and she delivered. Her inauguration address, titled “Busy Being Born,” was all about continuous transformation and the need to avoid stagnation. At the time, she said, “A strong institution encourages its community to seek change, to risk change.” 

From the start of her presidency, McCartney had a vision to make Smith a more accessible, welcoming, and innovative place that would be the college of choice for leaders in the making. “Kathy knew exactly where she wanted to take the college and has pursued her goals tirelessly, overcoming many challenges and never giving up,” says Carrie Baker, professor of the study of women and gender. 

By all accounts, McCartney accomplished everything she set out to do. In the past 10 years, applications for admission to Smith have soared more than 122%. In the face of climate change, Smith has become more sustainable; thanks to a range of initiatives, including a transformative geothermal energy project currently underway, Smith will reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030. As the nation grappled with racism and responded to calls for racial justice, Smith developed a comprehensive plan to acknowledge its own history and take concrete action to address systemic racism and become an anti-racist campus. As the cost of college increased nationwide, Smith doubled down on its commitment to access and affordability, embarking on a $200 million fundraising campaign for scholarship aid and making the historic decision in the fall of 2021 to eliminate loans from its financial aid packages. 

“Kathy is a true visionary,” says Alison Overseth ’80, chair of the Smith College Board of Trustees. “She led Smith with love and trust and heart and soul. We are so strong as an institution now because of what Kathy has accomplished. Our future looks so hopeful because we are coming off of a leader like Kathy. We owe her an incredible debt of gratitude.” 

Times were not always easy, though. Namely, the pandemic was impossible to predict or plan for, and it disrupted—at least for a little while—some of the momentum of McCartney’s final few years. The campus went into lockdown, the pace of major projects like the renovation of Neilson Library slowed, and the college braced for potential budget reductions as revenue dipped and the need for more financial aid increased. Nonetheless, McCartney kept going, earning widespread praise for her thoughtful and compassionate leadership during one of the most challenging moments in the college’s history. “Steering the college through the pandemic is, I think, Kathy’s greatest accomplishment,” says Provost and Dean of the Faculty Michael Thurston. “She got pretty much every move right, even when it was a really risky move like shifting the fall 2020 semester to fully remote instruction. She was able to lead as we struck a balance between health and safety and academic effectiveness.”

With just a few months left in her tenure, McCartney took some time to reflect on what she calls “one of the greatest privileges of my life,” what she’ll miss most about Smith, and why colleges like it remain an important option.

What is on your mind as you enter the final stretch of your presidency?

The transition, for sure, because I want to do everything I can to ensure that Sarah [Willie-LeBreton] is prepared on Day One. I asked my team to put together a briefing book for her; she’s coming to campus a few times this spring to meet with various departments, and she’ll have plenty of time with me. I’m also focused on fundraising for my priorities, especially for career development and financial aid, so that eventually we can be a need-blind college. And I’m trying to savor these last few months. Spring is such a beautiful time here, filled with wonderful traditions.

What influenced your decision to step down?

Ten years is what I agreed to from the start, and I do think new leaders help places like Smith continue to evolve. Also, the timing just felt right. Looking at our strategic plan, Lives of Distinction and Purpose, I can say that we have really accomplished everything that I hoped to do. Of course, we can always do more, but we have so much to be proud of. And, on a more personal level, my husband, Bill, is 11 years older than I am, and I know he’s looking forward to spending some quality time together in retirement.

He has been such an integral part of Smith. How does he feel about leaving?

He loves Smith so much too. About a month ago, we were having dinner and he looked out the window at Paradise Pond and said, “How are we going to ever leave this place?” And I said, “It means so much to me that you feel that way.” He’s traveled the world with me for Smith. He’s attended almost every event I’ve been to. He is Smith’s best advocate, and I’ve been grateful to have him by my side on this journey. 

Thinking back to your first year, what excited you most about joining the Smith community? 

There were many things. Some colleges have a reputation for being strong communities, and Smith is one of them. I quickly found that to be so. This community really embraced me from the beginning. I also wanted to be at a liberal arts college, and particularly at a women’s college, because they are, in their own way, disruptive. Nobody questions a woman’s ability to lead here. That has been incredibly empowering for me.

Now, a decade later, what excites you about the Smith community?

We’re in the business of changing lives. This is our mission, this is our work, this is our honor. I have come to know quite a few students, and it is thrilling to watch them grow and change and develop such passion for putting what they learn here into action in the world. What better work can you do? I wake up every morning excited about going to work.

Why are women’s colleges like Smith still necessary and critical to the higher education landscape?

I believe higher education should be offering a variety of educational experiences. For some students, a women’s college experience is the right one. And consider some of the things going on in the world today: gender discrimination, violence against women, threats to reproductive rights. It is clear that Smith’s mission remains unfinished. Students continue to choose Smith because of our commitment to addressing structural inequalities of all kinds. 

You’ve had remarkable success with fundraising. One of your first major accomplishments was completing the college’s Women for the World campaign. You soared past the goal of $450 million, raising more than $486 million. Then, in the fall of 2021, Smith received the largest gift in its history—$50 million from an anonymous alum. Does fundraising just come naturally to you?

I am a people person; I suppose most psychologists are. I see fundraising as a partnership. When I meet with someone, often an alum, I share Smith’s philanthropic priorities. Philanthropists are searching for a good idea, and Smith has an abundance of them. Often, donors share how grateful they are for the opportunity. The first time this happened to me is when I went to visit Viola (Vi) Spinelli, class of 1947, to thank her for her $5 million gift, which was definitely a stretch gift for her. She grabbed my hands, shook her head, and said, “No, no, you don’t understand. I’m grateful to you. This is my legacy. Long after I’m gone, the Spinelli Center [for Quantitative Learning] will be at Smith College, my alma mater.” She had tears in her eyes, and I often tell people that there are a lot of happy tears in fundraising. When people make significant gifts, it brings them joy. It can be very emotional.

During your tenure, we saw an increased urgency around climate change. We experienced the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and a national call for racial justice. We saw basic rights being stripped away. What role do you think colleges like Smith can play in addressing these major cultural issues? 

Colleges can amplify voices and ideas for change. Our faculty, for example, are scholars who create knowledge to address every critical issue facing the country and world. Many members of our community—students, staff, and faculty—are activists who are working hard to identify solutions. Importantly, colleges can be models for the wider world by solving some of these problems on their own campuses. At Smith, we take this task very seriously. For example, we partnered with four other institutions to build a solar farm in Maine that is providing about 30% of our electricity. Last summer, we broke ground on a transformative geothermal energy project that will get us to carbon neutrality by 2030. With respect to racial justice, we developed a three-phase plan where we get educated, reflect on the history of racial injustice, and engage in action planning, with the goal of ensuring that everyone has a sense of being welcome and belonging at Smith. This has been some of the most consequential work of my presidency.

Take us back to the early days of the pandemic. Smith was one of the first colleges to send students, staff, and faculty home. What was going through your mind when you had to make those tough decisions with often little information at your disposal?

There were rumblings very early on, in March of 2020, that colleges were thinking about not bringing students back after spring break, so I called an emergency meeting of my leadership team at my house. Deborah Duncan [’77], chair of the board of trustees at the time, joined via teleconference; this was before Zoom calls became the norm. Together, we mapped out the advantages and disadvantages of our options. By the end of the night, we were leaning toward sending students home, but it was such a big decision, so I asked everyone to take the night to think about it. We reconvened the next morning. Everyone agreed that sending students home was the best course to take for health and safety, and in hindsight, I think it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Was there any backlash to that decision?

There was. We received a petition from more than 200 students who said they didn’t want to go home—that they were young and would be fine. I had to say to them, “But what about the faculty and staff? I’m worried about them.” Remember, in those early days, we were afraid to go to the grocery store. We had little information and weren’t entirely sure how the virus would affect individuals. I had to confide in some of the students that I never thought I’d have to make a life-or-death decision as president, but that’s where we found ourselves. 

Amid all of this, the business of the college needed to continue. How did you personally stay motivated, and how did you motivate the community to keep moving forward?

Crisis management is part of the job of being a president, but I never thought that I’d be managing through a global pandemic. My work never felt more important to me than during the early days of the pandemic, so it was easy to stay motivated. My team and I knew we had to prioritize the health and safety of members of the community, communicate often and with transparency, and support the faculty as they developed new ways of teaching and learning. I am so proud of how everyone stepped up. On a personal level, there were times when I, like everyone else, felt a bit lonely. I had two infant granddaughters that I couldn’t visit for several months. One thing Bill and I did to stave off the feeling of being isolated was start walking 3 miles a day. It’s something we continue to do.

Of all your major accomplishments, is there one you are most proud of?

Eliminating loans from our financial aid packages. This goes back to what I was talking about earlier—how the work we do changes lives. With one vote, the board of trustees made a Smith education more accessible and more affordable—in perpetuity. I’ll never forget that day. I, and several trustees, had tears in our eyes because we knew the impact our decision would have on the lives of our students and their families. It was an incredibly emotional moment, and perhaps the proudest day of my professional life.

Smith students are known for their creativity, innovation, and unwillingness to accept the status quo. What have they taught you about using education to push the world forward?

Every day, I am inspired by our students. They’re smart and funny and care deeply about their college, and they push us to be our best selves. I remember when students were pushing for Smith to divest from fossil fuel managers. They did such a good job. Their strategy was incredibly effective. I appreciated how they used data to inform their arguments. At one point, they met with the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. During the meeting, they brought in this brilliant PowerPoint presentation that was full of great data on the impact of climate change. They made a very compelling values-driven argument. They were occasionally funny too. They came to my office once with a giant valentine that said, “We love you, Kathy. Divest!” Then they signed it. It was huge. And they had very successful protests. When the board of trustees was on campus, the students held up signs and stood silently outside the Campus Center, so when the board came out we noticed them and would stop and read their signs and listen to what they had to say. What inspired me was that every time they got a win, they just kept going. I admired that. In everything we do, we empower students to lead change. I find great comfort in knowing that Smithies are out there leading movements, fighting for justice, and making a better world. 

You have a deep love for poetry. Does any particular poem come to mind now as you think about leaving Smith?

There is one that I’ve turned to quite often lately. It is called “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves” by Lucille Clifton. It goes:

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves

You are a developmental psychologist. Applying that lens to your own experience over the past decade, how have you grown and evolved personally?

I think in a lot of ways leadership offers opportunities for personal growth. For example, you get to mentor people, and I have found great joy in mentoring people on my team. That has helped me grow. If you do it right, you own your mistakes and see criticism as caring about the institution. And if you can do the work with equanimity, you will change for the better. You just will. 

You’ve often said that Smith is defined by a profound sense of place. Why do you think that is true, and what campus spaces will you miss most?

That is absolutely true. When I ask students and alums why they decided to attend Smith, they always mention the beauty of the campus. They tell me they visited and could see themselves here. They use the same language. We all know that nature soothes the soul, and we’re so fortunate to be on a campus that is itself a botanic garden. Personally, I’ll miss the Happy Chace ’28 Garden that is adjacent to the President’s House and overlooks Paradise Pond. It has brought me such joy through the seasons. I’ll also miss the unexpected and at times serendipitous encounters that occur along campus paths. Some of the most joyful encounters I’ve had have happened while I was walking to my office in the morning. The landscape encourages these kinds of personal connections.

Are there particular images of Smith that will stay with you?

There are so many: a sea of students and alums in white on Ivy Day; the foliage of the trees by Paradise Pond; the smiles of the newly tenured faculty as they receive a bottle of Champagne at a faculty meeting; the first snowwoman I saw on campus; interviewing Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, who received an honorary degree and shared that she was proud to be a Smithie; students picnicking on Chapin lawn during the first warm spring day; interviewing Jericho Brown and Alena Smith about Emily Dickinson at the first Presidential Colloquium this year; giving the trustees a tour of the new Neilson Library; the Smith basketball team making it to the Final Four amid cheers from the fans; every single Mountain Day. And maybe one very personal moment—my inauguration day, when students from the quad met Bill and me and started marching alongside us to the ITT [Indoor Track and Tennis Facility]. There is a picture I keep near my desk that captures that moment. It’s beautiful. We’re both looking at each other like, “Can you believe this?” It was an incredibly special day.

What comes next for you, after Smith?

Retirement is a significant life event, and I want to be thoughtful about it. In particular, I want to carefully consider what new projects I take on. I know a few things that I’ll be doing. First, I plan to take some time to decompress and really reflect on the past 10 years. I’m on a board that will provide me with some meaningful work. I have a new camera and want to return to photography as a creative outlet—something I used to do. I plan to spend more time with my family. Time is our most valuable resource, and I want to spend it wisely. 

John MacMillan is the senior editorial director at Smith. 




Saying Farewell to President McCartney
A Special Series


PART 1: How Are We Ever Going to Leave This Place?

As her tenure comes to an end, President McCartney looks back at the most meaningful moments of the past decade. 

PART 2: Reflections on a Presidency

Faculty and staff recount President McCartney’s impact on Smith College.

PART 3: 6 Ways President McCartney Changed Smith Forever

Highlights of President McCartney’s lasting accomplishments at Smith College. 

Photograph by Aundrea Marschoun AC