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Words From Smith Presidents Past


Published October 18, 2023

On October 21, President Sarah Willie-LeBreton will deliver what may well be one of the most consequential speeches of her career—her inauguration address. 

Long considered an opportunity for a new president to express their values, discuss the big issues of the day, and lay out a vision for their presidency, inaugural addresses can be poetic or practical, long (President William Allan Neilson’s was over two hours) or short (President Ruth Simmons spoke for about 20 minutes).

Smith presidents’ inaugural addresses have ranged from LeRoy Burton’s observations on the “work of the American college” in 1910 and its role in educating students to be defenders of “the cause of worldwide humanity” to Kathleen McCartney’s reflections on continuous change and how life “offers the learner opportunities to be born, over and over.”

As the inauguration of President Willie-LeBreton approaches, here is a look back at highlights from speeches of some of the 11 presidents who preceded her.

Marion LeRoy Burton, 1910

“Our aim must be to educate the individual student for something or we fail. We live in a critical period of our national life. The unprecedented accumulation of wealth, the consequent presence and increase of luxury, the appearance and growth of the leisure class all suggest a serious problem. Our youth must be trained to conserve the best interests of our nation. Adequate knowledge of history, clear conceptions of our traditions of democracy, ready ability to discern forces which make for the destruction of these ideals—these must be the aims of our education.”

William Allan Neilson, 1918

“The college that regards itself as having reached the limit of improvement is in a dangerous way. The growth in numbers, the advance in general educational ideas and methods, the changes in the position of women in the community, all call for a perpetual reconsideration and readjustment of our organization. And at the present time, the revolutionary changes—social, economic, even ethical and religious—promise to make demands on those responsible for the education of the next generation for a power of adaptability and a breadth of vision such as have perhaps never been exacted in modern times.”

Herbert Davis, 1940

“Education of any kind can never be a safe investment. If it is worth anything at all, it must be a risky business. For by its very nature it must be an experiment in freedom. If we really believe that the glory of man is in the powers of his mind and spirit, we must provide that freedom in which alone the mind can do its work. It is a farce to talk about the defense of freedom unless we are ready to accept the fruits of freedom, and in education to recognize one chief purpose—to produce free spirits, and to let them work freely.”

Jill Ker Conway, 1975

“I believe we must acquire the knowledge and develop the resources to counsel our students about the typical career experiences of women and about the typical turning points in women’s lives. Women’s lives in our culture require them to make new beginnings in their late thirties or early forties and it is my hope that Smith College, as a women’s college, may provide educational resources which will make that stage of new beginnings not one of disorientation or crisis but rather one of renewal and increased potential for growth.”

Ruth Simmons, 1995

“Our critics would have us believe that the times require application, rather than creation; rote and routine, rather than deep and original analysis; uninspired tinkering, rather than true discovery; regulation, rather than revelation. These harbingers of containment would limit the opportunity to carve out new areas of human pursuit, new areas of research, new areas of human possibility, new areas that have the potential to save our civilization from untimely extinction. Since no one can predict with certainty where the future will take us, let us not through imperfect science and myopic greed relegate our future to one of uninspired and artless learning. . . . At Smith, we still believe that the best policy in education is to learn well and to learn broadly. For that is the only way to ensure that, as societal, industrial and technological shifts occur, this society is left not merely with doers whose only capacity is to follow instructions that will become obsolete, but also with thinkers who, when the system crashes, will be able to rebuild it.”

Carol Christ, 2002

“Since I have come to Smith, I have been amused by how often I have been asked whether Smith’s development of the sciences, embodied in its new engineering program and its plan for a new science center, means that it will abandon the liberal arts. Citizens of 18th-century Virginia could have asked Thomas Jefferson the same question when he introduced medical science and natural history into the curriculum. Like Jefferson, I have no intention of abandoning the humanities; they are my intellectual passion. But surely the sciences are among the liberal arts—fields of study that contribute to general intellectual culture.”

Kathleen McCartney, 2013

“Smith’s mission is resilient. The need for liberal arts education has never been stronger. The capacities developed through a liberal arts education—the ability to think critically, to speak and write compellingly, to apply evidence and quantitative analysis, to know the world, its ideas, its culture and history: these are the abilities that graduate programs seek. They are what employers value. They are what the world so urgently needs. As important, a liberal arts education provides a foundation for a fulfilling life.”

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