UPDATE: A memorial service for President Emerita Jill Ker Conway will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, in Helen Hills Hills Chapel. The community is invited.
Northampton, MA — Jill Ker Conway — an acclaimed scholar and author who served from 1975 to 1985 as president of Smith College — died Friday, June 1, at her home in Boston. She was 83.
Conway was the first woman to serve as president of Smith.
Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s president since 2013, described Conway as a “groundbreaking and gracious” president who was also a good friend and mentor. Referencing A Woman’s Education, Conway’s 2001 memoir of her time at Smith, McCartney credited her predecessor with “doing the hard work.”
“Jill Ker Conway came to Smith at a time when gender roles were being transformed — and there were people here who tried to stand in her way,” McCartney said. “But at a time when the academy didn’t see women as college presidents — or as leaders at all — she demonstrated a leadership that was innovative and effective. From her, I learned to work over, under, around and through to advance women’s position in the world.”
Raised in Australia, Conway came to the United States in 1960 for graduate study at Harvard, and was just 39 years old when she accepted the Smith presidency in 1974. A specialist in the history of women reformers in the United States, Conway began her presidency at a time when women’s rights and ascension into the professions were reshaping society. A longtime supporter of women’s education and of the liberal arts, Conway built her presidency toward fostering “research and the creation of new knowledge,” as she said in her inauguration address, “around matters of central importance in women’s lives.”
As Smith’s president, Conway led the development of many groundbreaking programs, projects and academic departments, including the Ada Comstock Scholars Program, an innovative, life-changing and highly regarded program for students beyond the traditional age. She also spearheaded creation of the Smith Management Program (now called Smith Executive Education); the Project on Women and Social Change; and academic programs in women’s studies, comparative literature and engineering.
Conway was an extraordinarily effective fundraiser, enthusiastically embraced by Smith’s board of trustees and popular with donors; she also made it a priority to understand and improve Smith’s endowment spending. The endowment nearly tripled during her presidency, growing from $82 million to $222 million. As a result, Smith was able to undertake several important capital projects during her tenure, including a large-scale renovation and expansion of Neilson Library. An enthusiastic athlete and sports fan who loved to cheer for Smith student-athletes, Conway recognized the rapidly growing emphasis on fitness and athletics for women in the wake of Title IX, and she oversaw the construction of Ainsworth Gymnasium and the early creation of new indoor and outdoor track and tennis facilities. She also expanded the Career Development Office to better counsel Smith students and alumnae about career opportunities and graduate training for women.
In the first year of her presidency, Time magazine named Conway a “woman of the year.”
Conway’s presidency was not always easy. As she wrote in A Woman’s Education — the 2001 book published as the third in her best-selling trilogy of memoirs — she arrived at Smith to find an entrenched faculty (most of whom were men) resistant to change and focused on battles around politics, sex and coeducation.
Nevertheless, she persisted, and in this highly charged setting, Conway found a way to succeed. She found support from a strong group of young women faculty, who “helped find [her] feet politically,” and who also helped carry the water on the movement for curricular change. Smith students welcomed the new courses that Smith’s faculty were developing, and alumnae were eager to help their alma mater’s first woman leader.
Conway was an early and outspoken advocate for keeping college affordable, and in 2013 Smith raised more than $1 million from alumnae, and an additional $2 million from Joan Fletcher Lane ’49, toward the Jill Ker Conway Challenge. In 2016, Smith established the Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, a state-of-the-art innovation lab where students develop the tools to think expansively and create innovative solutions to real-world challenges. In 2006, Smith dedicated Conway House, the college’s first residence for Ada Comstock Scholars and their families.
Conway maintained a deep connection to Smith even after she retired from the presidency in 1985. She lived in nearby Conway, Mass., with her husband, John, whom she had met at while she was a graduate student at Harvard and who died in 1995.
After retiring from the Smith presidency in 1985, Conway vowed to “divide her life into thirds,” she wrote in A Woman’s Education. One third of her remaining life would be dedicated to becoming a writer: Her three memoirs — The Road From Coorain, True North and A Woman’s Education — were critically praised, and all were best sellers, focusing, as Conway said, on “what women were not supposed to acknowledge–ambition, love of adventure, the quest for intellectual power, physical courage and endurance, risk taking, the negative aspects of mother/daughter relations always so relentlessly sentimentalized.”
Conway dedicated another third of this portion of her life to thinking about and advocating for environmental issues — not from the ecofeminist perspective that was popular at the time, but as a visiting professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society , an appointment she held until 2011. She edited the 2000 book Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment.
She also cared deeply about issues of homelessness, particularly among veterans. In 2016, Community Solutions honored her leadership on this issue by dedicating the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence, a 124-unit, mixed income apartment building in Washington, D.C., for chronically homeless veterans and low-income residents.
The final third of her life Conway dedicated to “helping to govern institutions [she] wasn’t responsible for running.” She served on a number of educational, corporate and not-for-profit boards, including Merrill Lynch, Nike, Kresge, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Community Solutions and Colgate-Palmolive. She also served as the managing director of Lend Lease Corporation Limited, and was widely recognized for her contributions as a historian and as a trailblazing educator. Her penetrating questions, strategic insights, knowledge of global markets and commitment to the social good strengthened each organization and deepened its commitment to corporate responsibility.
In 2013, President Obama honored her with the National Humanities Medal. That same year, she was named a Companion of the Order of Australia, the highest civic honor awarded by that country. She also received more than three dozen honorary degrees and awards from North American and Australian colleges, universities and women’s organizations. In 2004, Conway was named a Women’s History Month honoree by the National Women’s History Project.
A graduate of the University of Sydney, Conway received her doctoral degree from Harvard in 1969, and began her academic career at the University of Toronto as a professor of U.S. social and intellectual history. She rose through the administrative ranks to serve as the university’s vice president for internal affairs before coming to Smith.
Conway was predeceased by her husband of 33 years, John J. Conway, and she is survived by two generations of nieces and nephews and other family members in the U.S., Australia and Canada.
Funeral services will be held at St. Mark’s Church, Conway, Mass., at 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 9. A memorial will be held on campus later this year.