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State of the College Address 2009

Carol T. Christ, Tenth President of Smith College
Ivy Day, May 16, 2009; Second Reunion Weekend, May 23, 2009

Good morning and welcome. It is my privilege to stand before you today and remind you of what is manifest in this marvelous assembly: Your college -- Smith College -- is an exceptional place, and Smith women are remarkable in all that they endeavor.

This morning we celebrate achievements and honors, records and landmarks, milestones of all kinds. And there are many. But first I would like to reflect on their context, the backdrop of our recent history, for these are extraordinary times in which we are living and they have called out in each of us -- students, alumnae, teachers and parents -- extraordinary qualities of reflection, generosity and resilience.

This year marked an historic election, one of the most exciting and consequential in U.S. history, a battle that broke barriers of race and gender, engaged record numbers of voters young and old, and created new paradigms of grassroots organizing. Smith alumnae held key campaign leadership roles, and many now join our graduates in Congress and in all realms of public service, a path that many of last weekend’s graduating seniors intend to follow.

But coincident with this moment is the unprecedented economic uncertainty we are confronting, as governments around the world struggle to reverse the worldwide financial downturn. The certainties on which we all build our lives -- career, home, education, investments -- look different now than they did just a year ago, and few among us are taking the future for granted.

This is true not only of individuals but of institutions as well. As many of you know, this has been a year of intensive financial planning at Smith, driven in large part by the effect of the downturn on our endowment. Our task, as a community, has been to reconcile our high aspirations with the financial realities of a new era.

The students, faculty and staff on the budget planning committee faced challenging choices in recommending expense-reduction strategies. Their aim was to address present-day financial declines while, in the longer view, assuring Smith’s strength, resilience and bright future. That balancing act is, in essence, the key to managing a college like ours -- and, not incidentally, its endowment: to ensure that coming generations of students can benefit from the same exceptional education available to Smith students today.

As difficult as many of our choices were, one was clear: I am proud that, even as we were forced to reduce our annual expenses, we have maintained our foundational commitment to meeting students’ full demonstrated financial need, ensuring that high-achieving women from all backgrounds will continue to have the benefit of a Smith education.

In the coming years you are likely to see Smith take a leadership position in forming cooperative, strategic alliances with other institutions, whether among the Five Colleges, other study abroad providers, or universities around the world who can offer students opportunities to develop their capacities for leadership in different global contexts.

Some of this cooperation will take the form of less visible but critically important operational consolidation in areas such as information technology services, coordinated purchasing of electronic and traditional library acquisitions and exposure to a wider range of career development opportunities for our students. Alumnae have always been key to our students’ professional development and career success, and we will seek to tap this valuable resource in additional and invigorated ways.

We will develop new and flexible options for students in all fields who seek an international experience as part of their Smith education. And we will take advantage of the growing capacities of online communication, including social networking and other new media resources, to enhance dialogue with alumnae and prospective students, bringing the story of Smith today more immediately and vividly into their -- your -- lives.

For me, and I hope for each of you, one of the most sustaining lessons of this moment in our history is the remarkable resilience of Smith College, an institution that, as many of you know firsthand, has met past challenges with determination, creativity and common purpose.

This past year, in the wonderful company of a group of STRIDE students, I have been making time to study the history of Smith, reading particularly about the challenges faced by the college and its leaders during the Great Depression. At a time of serious economic retrenchment, enrollment challenges, and strains on students, faculty and their families, Smith, under President William Allan Neilson, continued to invest with a long view of Smith’s preeminence and international distinction. In 1930, Neilson inaugurated the college’s Junior Year Abroad Program in Madrid, followed by Florence the next year. Alumnae, whose support has always been central to Smith’s ability to offer scholarships, stepped forward with unprecedented philanthropic appeals, joining with graduates of other women’s colleges -- the emerging Seven Sisters -- to urge that married college graduates give as much to the wife’s alma mater as to the husband’s. In typical fashion, Smith found opportunity in challenge, resourcefulness in constraint, and continued to graduate women whose service and leadership has benefited us all.

The foundation for Smith’s future is strong. This spring, we admitted a spectacular class, selected from the largest pool of applications in Smith’s history. You are part of one of the largest reunion groups of recent years. Smith is an institution that has continued to invest in its faculty and staff, and thoughtfully developed its academic resources and facilities -- including Ford Hall, whose opening we will celebrate next fall -- all in service of providing an extraordinary and transformative education.

Earlier this year, at Rally Day, we honored five alumnae renowned for their contributions to science, culture and the arts: thoroughbred advocate, owner, and breeder Penny Bates Chenery ’43; physician and scientist Naomi Lynn Hurwitz Gerber ’65; museum director, educator, and historian Beverly Morgan-Welch ’74; choreographer and musical theater director Kathleen Marshall ’85; and environmental journalist Simran Sethi ’92. Their remarkable achievements were concrete affirmations for current students of the power of a Smith education.

Beyond the campus, Smith alumnae continue to be recognized around the world. Mary Ann Hoberman ’51 is the newest Children’s Poet Laureate of the United States, a post to which she was named by the Poetry Foundation. Hoon Eng Khoo ’73 is transforming the lives of young women in developing countries by helping to launch The Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. Wendy Schmidt ’77 is working to preserve land and local businesses on Nantucket. Barbara Ridpath ’78 is heading the International Center for Financial Regulation, a think tank recommending improvements to the international financial system. Susan Murray ’80, a lawyer and community activist, has been instrumental in Vermont’s fight for same-sex marriage, which was legalized last month. Jennifer Barnes ’82 is the new president of Murray Edwards College, a women’s college of Cambridge University. Elizabeth Nicolosi ’84 is the author of It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust,published under the pen name Elizabeth Bettina. Tori Murden McClure ’85 is the author of A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean, a memoir of becoming the first woman and first American to row across the Atlantic. Julianna Smoot ’89 was called the “$75 million woman” by the Washington Post after bringing in a record number of gifts early on in Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency -- an effort that eventually broke every record in political fundraising. Stephanie Cutter ’90, who served in a number of high-profile roles in the Obama campaign and transition, is now serving as an adviser to President Obama in the process of naming a new Supreme Court Justice. Playwright and journalist Winter Miller ’95 was named “the drama queen of Darfur” by The New Yorker magazine after her play, In Darfur,garnered national acclaim. A new book, Outcasts United, features the work of Luma Mufleh ’97 to found a soccer program in Atlanta for refugee children from war-torn nations around the world.

These are the public stories -- and only a fraction of them -- but we also know that alumnae are making courageous, creative, selfless and transformative commitments in quieter ways as well, whether as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; school volunteers and community arts participants; survivors of illness and caretakers to aging parents and disabled children. Some of you are starting relationships and families; others are sending children off to college. Smith weaves in and out of your lives, and the bonds of community made here are constant and sustaining.

Seniors and alumnae, each time you return to this campus, over the course of your life, you will find it renewed and yet constant, evolving and yet familiar. This is a place of beginnings and returns, of commencement and continuation -- and it is in this context that we celebrate your achievements today.

Let me turn now to the remarkable Class of 2009, you soon-to-be alumnae, whose hard work and commitment over the last four years we will honor at tomorrow’s ceremonies.

There are 683 of you -- and 64 graduate students. You come from 48 U.S. states and 25 countries. Fifty-five of you are Ada Comstock Scholars, ranging in age from 25 to 57. Together you have completed 814 majors; 131 are double majors. Your most popular majors were psychology, government, economics, art and English.

Moreover, some of you have some pretty impressive Smith connections. Fifty-six of you have a mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, great-aunt, great-grandmother who is a Smithie. And seven of those family members are celebrating reunions this year.

Two families deserve a special mention. Senior Maya Guttman-Slater ’09 is the granddaughter of Elaine Wechsler Slater ’47, the niece of Lisa Slater ’73, the daughter of Abby Slater ’80, and the cousin of Joanna Slater ’97.

Senior Jessie Paull is the great-granddaughter of Hazel Cary Kerr 1906, the granddaughter of Lucia Kerr Paull ’38, the granddaughter of Lois Peckham Burden ’40, the niece of Linda Burden Monchik ’69, the daughter of Brenda Burden Paull ’72, and the niece of Debra Burden Lezama ’80.

I think those both qualify as Smith College dynasties!

Seniors, as you prepare to enter the world, you already carry with you an array of marvelous achievements and capacities that set you apart.

Smithies won 14 Fulbright Fellowships this year! Nine went to seniors and five to recent graduates. The seniors are Heather Adair, Lyla Dodge, Alyson Faller, Eve Grinstead, Johanna Gustin, Dara Kaye, Traci Kuratomi, Elizabeth Pusack, and Amy Zeng. The alumnae are Christine Frascarelli ’06, Kathryn Fox and Amanda Parsons, both from the class of ’07, and Meara Heubach and Cole Rizki, both from the class of ’08.

This is an honor of which I am enormously proud. Our success rate, the number of applicants chosen as fellows, is more than twice the national average. That is a tribute not only to our students’ ambition, drive, and preparation but to the profound investment the Smith faculty makes in mentoring and developing students for success after college.

Fulbrights were not the only prestigious fellowships for Smith. Seniors have distinguished themselves in a number of other important competitions as well. Lyudmyla Kovalenko and Chantel Pfeiffer have been awarded DAAD fellowships to study in Germany. Amelia VanderLaan has won a Hellenic American Education Foundation Teaching Fellowship. Megan Burbank and Erin Whelchel have been awarded teaching assistantships by the French government. Nadia Rivera-Nieves has won a fellowship to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Paola Chinchilla, Rachel Love, Linda Nechamkin and Sarah Scott were awarded scholarships by the Italian government to teach in Italian secondary schools. Their success is a source of pride to all of us, and marks the beginning of a life journey we will watch with great interest.

Nearly 60 percent of seniors participated in a Praxis-funded internship while at Smith, in organizations ranging from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to in Cameroon.

Despite a challenging employment market Smith seniors have landed on their feet in the job market, securing positions at Deutche Bank, the Kennedy Space Flight Center, Mass General Hospital, Teach for America, Liberty Mutual, the U.S. Navy, and Japan’s Doshisha Girls School, to name just a few.

Smithies will be entering graduate programs at leading universities around the world, including Oxford, Duke, Penn, NYU, Brown, Indiana, UNC Chapel Hill, and the London School of Economics.

This was a terrific year for the Pioneers, as well, and I want to salute the many contributions that seniors have made to our athletic victories. The crew team has won the NEWMAC championship for the fourth time in the last six years and has been selected to compete in the NCAA Division III nationals at the end of this month. Basketball beat conference champions Babson College. And cross-country, soccer, volleyball, swimming and diving all beat Mount Holyoke. Senior Nora Youngs, an outstanding cross-country runner, was named to the NCAA All-Academic Team.

Each year at this time we recognize people who have worked on behalf of the college and who are retiring from their posts. Provost and Dean of Faculty Susan Bourque is returning to the faculty after an extraordinary term of academic leadership for Smith. Megan Ambrus ’07, past president of the SGA, will reach the end of her two-year term on the Board of Trustees this year. Trustees Nancy Keebler Bissell ’61, Phoebe Haddon ’72, and James Wei are completing their terms as well. We thank them for their dedication, wisdom and generosity on behalf of Smith College. We welcome to the board Hoon Eng Khoo ’73, Ann Sanford ’75, Deborah Duncan ’77, Nina Scherago Jones ’82, and our most recent SGA president, Marlowe Dieckmann ’09.

Four members of the faculty are retiring this year, after decades of exemplary teaching and scholarship. They are David Cohen, Marina Kaplan, Fred Leonard and Patricia Miller. We thank them for their service to countless students, to their colleagues and to their disciplines.

We also pause to remember those members of our community who died this year:

  • Michael Albertson, L. Clark Seelye Professor of Mathematics and Statistics
  • Adrienne Auerswald, Iva Dee Hiatt Professor Emerita of Music
  • Rita Benson, Associate Professor Emerita of Exercise and Sport Studies
  • Elizabeth Fitzgerald Cutler ’44, former trustee
  • Rosalind Shaffer deMille, Professor Emerita of Dance
  • Joan Kent Dillon ’47, former trustee
  • Michael Goodison, Museum of Art and Office of Advancement
  • Albert H. Gordon, former trustee
  • B. Elizabeth “Betty” Horner, Myra M. Sampson Professor Emerita of Biological Sciences
  • Ann Millspaugh Huff ’42, former trustee and alumnae association president
  • Kathleen E. Kabell ’10
  • Edith Blakeslee Phelps ’38, former trustee
  • Margaret Shook ’53, Professor Emerita of English Language and Literature
  • Melvin Steinberg, Professor Emeritus of Physics
  • Morton Stowe, Physical Plant, retired

As seniors become alumnae, as alumnae return to Smith, a remarkable cycle of support is set in motion, with the excellence of Smith today made possible by the generosity of every class, every generation, every individual and friend. On behalf of the college, its students, faculty, staff, and board of trustees; on behalf of young women around the world seeking an excellent education and thinking of Smith, I thank you for your commitment to your college. It is through your dedication and belief in our common future that Smith College fulfills its mission: to educate women of promise for lives of distinction.