Celebrating the Life of Smith President Emerita Mary Maples Dunn

A May 28 ceremony in Helen Hills Hills Chapel honored the life of President Emerita Mary Maples Dunn.

Family, friends, former colleagues and community members came together on May 28 to celebrate the life of Smith’s eighth president, Mary Maples Dunn, whom many remembered as a gifted community builder, a loving mother and an exceptional leader in the world of higher education.

Dunn died on March 19 at the age of 85.

Opening the ceremony in Helen Hills Hills Chapel, President Kathleen McCartney said Dunn “shaped the way I think about Smith.”

“The themes of Mary’s presidency remain urgent and relevant today: access to education, socially responsible investment and divestment, and challenges to higher education’s financial model,” McCartney said.

Smith President Kathleen McCartney and Presidents Emerita Jill Ker Conway and Carol Christ attended a ceremony honoring Mary Maples Dunn, the college’s eighth president.

Stories about Dunn, who served as Smith’s president from 1985 to 1995, ranged from the humorous to the poignant and depicted a life full of laughter, learning, leadership and care for others. A common theme expressed by friends and colleagues was Dunn’s deep commitment to creating a campus community that supported diversity and inclusion.

Frances Volkmann, the Harold Edward and Elsa Siipola Israel Professor Emerita of Psychology, recalled the way Dunn managed a 1986 student sit-in in College Hall relating to apartheid rule in South Africa. “Mary just kept at it,” Volkmann remembered. “She talked to everyone and, like a good leader, she listened. She valued everything everyone was saying, and found her way. Eventually, she was able to bring things to a conclusion.”

Helen Horowitz, the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor Emerita of History and Professor Emerita of American Studies, described Dunn as having a “special magic” and an unwavering commitment to economic and racial diversity. “She was a beloved force,” Horowitz said. “She drew you to her and created community wherever she went.”

President Emerita Carol Christ, who traveled from California to attend the ceremony, credited Dunn’s “progressive vision” for “changing Smith’s understanding of diversity and its commitment to it.”

“Smith is the college it is today because of Mary’s leadership,” Christ said.  

Professor of biological sciences Robert Merritt—who served as dean of the faculty under Dunn—recalled her boundless optimism, even during the most challenging moments of her presidency, from financial crises to campus protests.

“She was always looking at things from the positive side,” Merritt said. “Every challenge was an opportunity to make progress.”

Smith President Emerita Mary Maples Dunn

Mary’s daughters, Cecilia and Rebecca Dunn, said their mother was a perfect role model. “She achieved that magical work-life balance and showed me how to do it,” Cecilia said. “What a gift for a mother to give her daughter.”

Farah Pandith ’90, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the student body president during part of Dunn’s tenure and worked closely with her to develop a set of diversity-related initiatives—including Otelia Cromwell Day—in response to a series of race-related incidents that ignited student protests.

“Mary provided students with moral leadership,” Pandith said. “She showed us that even in times of anger and fear, good things can happen.”  

To honor Dunn’s legacy as a scholar and historian, a new endowed faculty chair has been established at Smith. The Mary Maples Dunn Professorship, an unrestricted chair, can be awarded to a scholar in any field. The first recipient will be announced on July 1. In an additional tribute to Dunn, the class of 1988 is adopting a maple tree on campus in her memory.