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News & Events for the Smith College Community
News of Note March 28, 2022

‘The Honor of a Lifetime’

President Kathleen McCartney plans to retire in 2023

Photograph by Sam Masinter

Saying she was humbled to be called to serve as Smith’s 11th president, Kathleen McCartney announced at the end of February that she will step down in June 2023, after a decade on the job. “The work has been deeply rewarding,” she wrote in a message to the community, “[and] I find myself filled with gratitude.”

McCartney’s tenure was shaped by profound events, including a global pandemic and a national racial reckoning, as well as by her own deeply personal commitment to ensuring access to education and equity and inclusion. Under her leadership, Smith developed a comprehensive plan for racial justice and recently made the historic decision to eliminate loans from its financial aid packages, among many other accomplishments.

Alison Overseth ’80, chair of the college’s board of trustees, called McCartney an “inspirational, aspirational, values-driven leader, with contributions that have infused nearly every aspect of the campus.”

Soon after announcing her decision, McCartney answered a few quick questions about her time at Smith and the plans she has for her final year as president.

As you enter your “senior year” as president, what do you remember most about your first year?

During my first week as president, I walked every inch of the campus, and I remember experiencing an overwhelming sense of belonging in this beautiful place. Local alums held a welcome reception for me shortly after [my husband] Bill and I arrived; over and over, they told me that Smith was where they found their voice and made lifelong friends. And a highlight of that first fall was my inauguration, which included a student party, a procession with bagpipes, a toast by my four children, a speech in which I shared my emerging vision for the college, and an outpouring of love from alums.

What made you decide that it is the right time for you to retire from the Smith presidency?

This job has been the honor of a lifetime, and I think we have accomplished a great deal as a community. But all good things must come to an end. Colleges and universities benefit from new leaders with new ideas so they can continue to evolve to meet new opportunities and challenges in higher education.

What is on your agenda for your remaining year?

Now that it is safe to travel, I hope to visit as many Smith clubs as I can to thank alums for their support of Smith and for the many generous ways they have supported me. I will continue to fundraise for two strategic initiatives very close to my heart: education access via financial aid and a new vision for career development. And when I’m not on the road I want to spend as much time as possible with students, at teas, athletics events, cultural events, and on Mountain Day—the best tradition of all.

"I am always filled with joy when students tell me how much they appreciate their Smith education."

Is there a favorite spot on campus that you will particularly miss?

There are so many, but three in particular come to mind. I will miss the Beatrice (Happy) Chace ’28 Garden that overlooks Paradise Pond along the path from the President’s House to central campus; it brings me delight in every season. I will also miss my office in College Hall, where I have had so many moving conversations with students, staff, faculty, and alums about their ideas for the college. Finally, I will miss the energy of John M. Greene Hall when the community is gathered in celebration, especially on Rally Day.

The pandemic has had a profound effect on every aspect of campus life, and it will be a lasting part of your legacy. What lessons have you drawn from leading the campus through the pandemic?

The pandemic was an inflection point for all of us. I remember gathering my team at the President’s House on March 11, 2020, to decide whether we needed to close down the campus and send students and employees home for their health and safety; we were one of the first colleges to do so, and it was the right thing to do. Managing through the pandemic has reinforced for me the importance of consulting and communicating with the community—and doing so transparently, which builds trust. I am deeply grateful to everyone in our community who went above and beyond on behalf of our students.

In your inaugural address, you named access and affordability as your top priorities, and you have made good on that promise in numerous ways. Is there anything else you would like to accomplish in this area before you leave Smith?

One of the researchers who has influenced me deeply is Anthony Abraham Jack, author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. He reminds all of us that citizenship in a community or institution goes beyond being admitted to a college. Put differently, being in a place isn’t necessarily the same as being of it. In that spirit, I am continuing to raise funds to equalize the student experience. Any student we admit should be able to take advantage of all that Smith has to offer without worrying about paying for books or a computer or basic daily needs. At the same time, I am also focused on fundraising to move Smith closer to being need-blind in admission.

What aspects of the president’s job have brought you joy?

I am always filled with joy when students tell me how much they appreciate their Smith education—and it happens quite often. In my first year, an Ada Comstock Scholar nearing graduation shared that her community college adviser had told her she was not a strong enough student to attend Smith. Her adviser was wrong. She excelled here. We change lives at Smith, and I love hearing students’ stories of why they value their Smith education.

You’ve often said that meeting alums is one of your greatest joys. What makes your interactions with Smith alums so special?

I remember my first Smith club event in New York City. The room was packed; in fact, they couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. After the president of the club introduced me, the alums leapt to their feet and applauded for minutes. They didn’t know me yet or know much about my emerging vision for the college. Still, they wanted me to know that they would support me. And they have. This experience has been repeated around the world. Smith alums love their college, and their president is the happy beneficiary of that love.

This story appears in the Spring 2022 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.