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State of the College Address 2013

Carol T. Christ, Tenth President of Smith College
Ivy Day, May 18, 2013; All Reunion Weekend, May 25, 2013

Good morning and welcome!

Welcome to the remarkable class of 2013!

Welcome to the alumnae!

And welcome to family and friends of Smith.

This is a particularly meaningful weekend for me. The Class of 2013 will be the last graduating class to which I will have the honor of speaking as the president of Smith College. Tomorrow, yours will be the last diplomas I will hand out. In a sense, I am graduating, too.

I want to take this opportunity to talk to you about the vision I’ve had for Smith and how far we have come in the past decade, but first let me start by simply saying: Smith today is strong; it is vibrant. And you are all part of Smith’s success.

Women from around the world are drawn to Smith in higher numbers than ever because they see the challenges their communities are facing and want to contribute meaningful solutions.

This year alone, our admissions office received more than 4,400 applications. After the most intense application season in our history, we are proud to extend a welcome to 635 women to join the Class of 2017. Among them are 70 daughters, sisters, or granddaughters of Smith alumnae.

They hail from 42 U.S. states and 38 countries. Sixteen percent are international citizens and thirty percent are students of color. The Class of 2017 will be joined by 45 transfer students and 31 Ada Comstock Scholars.

They know that Smith, with its remarkable history and considerable resources, will prepare them well for life in a world that grows more complex by the day.

Our promise to these women—and to every woman who attends Smith—is that by the time she graduates she will have the skills she needs to lead at all levels of society.

That is an important promise, especially now, as more and more women are looked to as the hope of their nations and as more women are called upon to lead.

We fulfill this promise in ways both simple and significant: through a curriculum that adheres to the tenets of the liberal arts but remains nimble enough to respond to what the times require; through important programs that bring Smith to the world and the world to Smith; through our unique study-away opportunities and one-of-a-kind internship program that allows students to use what they learn in the classroom in the world; and through a network of 48,000 alumnae that stretches across the globe.  

The evidence of our success is reflected in the remarkable accomplishments of our students and graduates and in the lives of distinction that you lead. Let me give you some examples.

We see it in our unmatched Fulbright program. With 22 Fulbright Fellows and a 75 percent first-round success rate among our 42 applicants, Smith has the highest success rate in the country. I’m proud of our students, and the way their accomplishments are making Smith a “college of and for the world.”

We see it on our courts and fields, in competition and teamwork. We celebrated this year with our basketball team, whose 23 and 5 record led them to the NCAA tournament for the first time in history.

We see it in our alumnae, like Tammy Baldwin ’84, the trailblazing senator from Wisconsin who is the first woman senator to be elected from that state and the first openly gay U.S. senator. In her victory speech, Tammy said, “I didn't run to make history. I ran to make a difference.” 

And we see it in every woman here today. Among you, ideas area already sprouting that will grow into movements. Into revolutions.

This is the Smith we know—a powerful force for changing women’s lives.

It is the Smith of today.

And it is the place I have proudly called home for the past 11 years.

For me, these past 11 years have been a remarkable journey.

It began on a beautiful day in the spring of 2002 when Paul and I set out from Berkeley in our car, having decided that driving across country would give us the time and space we needed to absorb such a momentous transition.

We stuck to two-lane highways for most of the way, preferring to be close to the towns that sprinkle the landscape. The drive took us about six days. Along the way, we listened to Haydn’s string quartets and read aloud to each other from Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.

We pulled up to 8 Paradise Road late in the afternoon of May 31, only to be greeted soon after by a violent thunderstorm that sent a giant tree limb crashing to the ground right outside the President’s House. I’m happy to say now that the storm and its aftermath were not harbingers for my life at Smith.

Recently, I looked back at my inaugural address to the Smith community. In many ways, today is a chance to close a chapter that began that October morning. I stand before you today as I did then, looking both backwards and forwards.

In my speech, I wrote that, in teaching our students to travel across the disciplines, we cannot hold to a falsely stable sense of the liberal arts. The liberal arts curriculum has never been stable, giving Smith the chance to be a pioneer in its evolution.

Through much of my journey, this belief that Smith should serve as a pioneer for change has been my guide.

There are four key values we have focused on over the last four years: access, affordability, global engagement and curricular innovation.

The most critical issue in higher education today is access, and I have made it the top priority of my presidency. Once first in the world in the share of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with college degrees, the U.S. is now 16th. We all know the transformative power of education, but for many students cost remains a barrier.

At Smith, we have done much to make education affordable. Sixty-one percent of our students receive need-based financial aid, with the average grant totaling about $33,000. More than that, all of our students receive a substantial scholarship of more than $14,000 drawn from our endowment and from annual gifts. As a result, Smith is a leader among its peers in putting a high-quality education within reach of women around the world.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ranked the 50 best-endowed colleges and universities by the percentage of students with Pell Grants. Smith was second after UCLA. In addition, nearly 20 percent of our students are the first in their families to go to college. We are a stronger, more diverse campus because of our efforts.

Smith is also a leader in its global reach and impact.

Smith has been a pioneer in international education for almost a century, from the 30-year partnership it established in 1916 with China’s first college for women, Ginling, and the founding of its own junior year abroad programs in the 1920s and 30s. We have long understood that in order for women to be true and effective leaders, they must be globally educated and exposed to cultures different from their own.

Today, Smith sends close to 50 percent of its students abroad to either study or work; that’s a larger percentage than at any other U.S. college. Our students teach children’s dance in Cambodia; they study the philosophies of India; and they develop locally sourced products to help lift a Nicaraguan community.

We have increased our percentage of international students to close to 12 percent, making our campus at once more global and multicultural. Academically, we are doing more than ever to broaden students’ worldview.

We have created a Global Studies Center that serves as a hub for discussions about international issues and a place where students can connect with scholars from around the world.

One of our most exciting initiatives is the Global Engagement Seminars, in which two faculty members from different disciplines take a seminar-size group of students to the location that is the focus of their studies. Students then remain in the area to do internships.

We have led seminars in Jerusalem, Greece, and Costa Rica, with students saying that the experiences were life-changing, giving them an unparalleled opportunity to immerse themselves not only in a scholarly subject but also the daily life of the local community.

Critical to the success of any presidency is the college’s academic reputation, and in the past decade we’ve introduced several innovative programs and courses of study that have bolstered our curriculum, making it more relevant to the student of today.

The Smith Design for Learning, the strategic plan that has guided us in so much of our decision-making, identifies several capacities of mind that we believe are essential for success in life: the ability to think and write critically and analytically; a deep understanding and appreciation for history, other cultures, and beliefs; and a global perspective that broadens our students’ understanding of world events and issues.

Today, all of our decisions about how we educate our students are grounded in these important principles. Our curriculum is more integrated, so students see clearly the connections among different disciplines and can choose a course of study that both satisfies their intellectual passions and expands their knowledge.

One way we are encouraging this integration is through the development of centers, focusing on global studies, work and life, community collaboration, and the environment.

Each of these centers brings together faculty and students in multidisciplinary programs and projects, each addresses issues fundamental to the world today, and each expresses an aspiration for leadership that our students will exercise when they leave Smith. 

Recognizing the need in the world for more women scientists, we have expanded our science curriculum.

Today, about 30 percent of our students major in the sciences. The engineering program that had just begun when I arrived is thriving. Ford Hall, Smith’s one-of-a-kind science center, is a nexus where the great tradition of the liberal arts meets the cutting edge of science and technology.

The women who graduate from Smith with degrees in the sciences are changing the landscape of the profession, demonstrating the undeniable cultural and civic value of scientists with backgrounds steeped in the liberal arts. They bring with them a sense of history and ethical consequence that strengthens their research and decision making.

Let me turn now to the concept of community.

As a residential college, Smith inherently encourages a broad sense of community.

When Sophia Smith chose Northampton as the home for the college that would bear her name, she began a partnership that many colleges and communities would envy.

I have always thought of Smith as a private college with a public conscience, a sensibility that has guided our engagements with—and investments in—Northampton throughout my presidency.

We have been proud to support our local public schools. Early in my tenure, we created and funded a position that serves as a dedicated point of contact for teachers and principals who want access to our collections, performances, speakers, and events.

We have worked closely with local cultural and economic development organizations, actively finding ways to support a thriving and vibrant downtown and a regional arts community with important benefits to our campus.

Our students, our faculty, come from around the world to Smith, and to Northampton, bringing with them different points of view and life experiences.

These perspectives create a vibrant and rich campus culture that, as all of you know, builds bonds and connects generations of women who share a singular experience. This experience is so intense, so transformative that they just know that the woman sitting next to them on an airplane is a Smithie, or that the author of a great book they just read went to Smith, or that that thoughtful parent speaking up at a school board meeting, offering to organize the latest fundraiser, must be a Smith woman. This sisterhood, this sense of being of one community, manifests in a profound way the true value of the Smith experience.

I once asked Jill Ker Conway why she felt Smith had produced so many leaders. She replied that the experience of living in a community for four critical years—a community you felt you could shape, influence, make better—developed a strong sense of agency that Smith graduates carried into their lives and careers. Smith’s mission, its social purpose, its commitment to the advancement of women, gives that agency even more focus and direction. Smith, as one alumna told me, is not just a college but a movement.  I am continually amazed and awed by its strength and power for good in the world.

What I have described to you represents the essence of my Smith story. I trust you can see how much Smith has grown and changed. We are more diverse, our campus is more global, our curriculum is more relevant. But my story—indeed, Smith’s story—is not done. There is still more to tell, and more to do. Last fall, we launched Women for the World, our campaign to raise $450 million to secure Smith’s future and provide a new generation of women with an unparalleled educational experience.

The reason for our campaign is clear: women from around the world deserve an education that matches their ambition.

Through the campaign, we will increase our endowed scholarship funds by $200 million, strengthening the foundation of the college’s financial aid program and helping us to not only create a more diverse and international student body but also ease the burden on families struggling to make ends meet while supporting the dreams of their daughters.

We will transform Smith in other ways, too, devoting significant resources to building new globally focused programs so that all of our students, no matter where they come from, will develop the cultural fluency they need to contribute and act effectively on the global stage.

Perhaps most importantly, Smith will be known as the pre-eminent source of women leaders for the world, with every student graduating feeling empowered and emboldened to lead in a breadth of venues with confidence, a strong voice, and awareness of her value to the world.

We have a vision for a better world in which women are leading at every level of society.

Women like you. Like the Class of 2013. The Class of 2008. The Class of 2003. The Class of 1998. The class of 1993. And the Class of 1988.

As we think back on Smith over the past decade and look forward to its future, I want to take a second to acknowledge the members of our faculty who will retire from their posts this year.

Ann Boutelle, English Language and Literature; Lâle Burke, Chemistry; and Margie Anderson, Biology, will retire this year. Please join me in thanking them for decades of exemplary teaching and scholarship.

Each year at this time we recognize those who have worked on behalf of the college and who are retiring from their posts.

Nine trustees will retire from the board this year. They are:

  • Lynn Smith Fox '77
  • Sidney Golub
  • Sabine Jean '11
  • Janet Wright Ketcham '53
  • Alexander Lindsey
  • Louise Parent '72
  • Tracy Garrett Rubin '77
  • M. Ann Sanford '75
  • Toni Grotta Wolfman '64

And, on July 1, we will welcome four new members to our board:

  • Dahna Black '13
  • Deborah Farrington '72
  • Susan Goodman Novick '71
  • Kathleen Barnes Grant '75

I would also like to pause for a moment and remember those members of our community that we lost this year. You will find their names in your programs.

To the alumnae, volunteers, and friends of Smith: As I look out at all of you, I am reminded of the important role you have played in my life at Smith.

Your support has sustained me through the years, your advice and good counsel made my vision for Smith clearer and more attainable.

A few months before I arrived at Smith, I spent some time studying the college’s presidents, trying to understand what each had inherited, their vision, and the things they accomplished.

As I came to know Smith, I became even more powerfully moved by the succession of presidents who, building on each other’s work, had shaped the college and strengthened it.

Whether looking out the window at the President’s House or walking past Neilson Library, I was always conscious of those men and women who had come before me, whose legacies are embedded in every brick, every stone, every blade of grass in the landscape.

What connects us is an immutable belief in the power of women’s education, a deep conviction that every woman, no matter her circumstances, has the potential to be a leader.

Sustaining that vision—which took shape in the mind of a woman who was ahead of her time—and carrying it forward has been one of the greatest honors of my life.

For that, I thank you all.

To the incredible class of 2013—look around you. Today, you leave a special place. A formative place. A place you will never forget. I know this because it is a place I will never forget.

You may feel as if you are leaving the Smith community, but I assure you—you are not. You are entering a Smith larger than our campus, larger than this city, larger than you can even imagine. You and I will always be Smithies.

You are ready. The world is ready. Together let’s show the world the true power of Smith women.