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State of the College Address 2011

Carol T. Christ, Tenth President of Smith College
Ivy Day, May 14, 2011; All Reunion Weekend, May 21, 2011

Good morning and welcome! It is wonderful to be with you, as we celebrate Smith’s present, past and future.

My job this morning is to report on the state of the college — and the state of Smith College is strong.

I don’t say that lightly but with a sense of great personal responsibility, to you, to our students and to the organizations, communities and nations, large and small, that stand in need of leadership today.

As I reflect on the year that has passed, I am ever more convinced of the importance — the urgency — of the experience that Smith provides in educating leaders for society’s challenges.

This is a year that saw:

  • The massive oil spill in the Gulf, from which we are still deep in recovery;
  • The tsunami and earthquakes that have devastated Japan, and the very recent, violent storms that have wrought disaster across Alabama and our southern states;
  • The death of Osama bin Laden, a complex victory in the global war on terrorism;
  • And bitter political battles over the federal budget, social spending, and education funding that have deepened gridlock in our nation at the very moment when we should be coming together to create opportunity.

Whether today’s challenges are environmental, religious, ethnic or political, two things are clear: they respect neither geographical nor disciplinary boundaries, and any meaningful progress toward their solution requires agility of mind, global understanding, and moral courage.

A particular form of courage — the courage of public service — came into sharp relief this year in the wake of shootings of two public servants whose lives touched Smith: the assassination of Pakistan governor Salman Taseer, father of Shehrbano Taseer ’10, and the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a colleague and friend of our own alumnae in Congress, representatives Tammy Baldwin ’84 and Niki Tsongas ’68.

In the days following her father’s murder, Shehrbano wrote about his passion and courage in the New York Times and Newsweek, in defiance of threats to her own life for doing so.

“There are those who say my father’s death was the final nail in the coffin for a tolerant Pakistan. That Pakistan’s liberal voices will now be silenced,” she wrote. “But we buried a heroic man, not the courage he inspired in others.”

In those words, I hear the mind and heart of a remarkable young woman — a Smith woman — whose will to be of public service and urge to speak truth runs deep.

That will to be of service can be found in every class represented here today, not least in the newest among us, the class of 2011.

As regimes begin to crumble in the Middle East and North Africa, as young people speak out, eager for education, jobs, professional opportunity and a voice in civil society and the future of their countries, the urgency of Smith’s mission becomes ever more clear: to educate women who will step forward, speak truth, and create change. 

That Smith educates for public service is not news to us. But our reputation for leadership came to the national and international stage this spring when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the Women and Public Service Initiative, an alliance that will bring together the State Department, Smith, and our sister institutions — Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley — to provide training and networking for women around the world.

The initiative is focused on women who are emerging into leadership roles in their countries and communities and who have the potential for careers in public service, whether in government, non-profits or NGOs.

Plans are under way for a major conference this fall to launch the initiative, as well as the development of an institute for these emerging women leaders that will be hosted at each of our campuses and at sites abroad.

You will be hearing more about this partnership in the weeks and months to come.

Secretary Clinton and Smith’s own Farah Pandith ’90, who works closely with her as the U.S. Representative to Muslim Communities, view the initiative as an important part of the Secretary’s legacy and a watershed moment to tap the historic power of the Sisters in creating women leaders around the world.

Women’s global leadership is also the focus of a new partnership that Smith has launched with CARE, in recognition of our shared belief that investing in women fights poverty worldwide.

Together, we are planning on-the-ground learning opportunities for our students and faculty — internships, co-taught courses and seminars, joint research projects -- through CARE’s humanitarian operations around the globe.

I said that Smith was strong, and I am pleased to share the evidence. This spring, we admitted a remarkable class, selected from the largest pool of applications — 4,128 — in Smith’s history.

The class of 2015 is shaping up to be our most international class ever and our most diverse in recent memory. It includes the daughters of two heads of state as well as 66 daughters, sisters, or granddaughters of Smith alumnae.

The fact that Smith educates global leaders is abundantly evident in the work of our alumnae, who continue to influence all aspects of society, from journalism to the arts, from business to education to government.

Judith Fergin ’73 was nominated to serve as ambassador to the Dominican Republic of Timor-Leste.

Carol Rodley ’76 was appointed to a second term as U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia.

Stephanie Cutter ’90 was named assistant to President Obama for special projects, a role in which she has been described as a “one-woman SWAT team in the White House.”

It was a great year for Smith authors, journalists and filmmakers. You may have heard recently that alumna Amy Ellis Nutt ’77, a writer for the Star Ledger in New Jersey, received a Pulitzer Prize for her story on the mysterious sinking of a fishing boat off the New Jersey coast.

Journalist and documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy ’02 won an International Emmy Award for her film “Dispatches: Pakistan's Taliban Generation.”

Poet, writer and activist Lenelle Moise, MFA ’04, was named poet laureate of the city of Northampton.

And this is probably the moment to note that 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the best-known books of our time: Smith alumna Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind.”

In education, Smith women achieved a number of milestones.

Tori Murden McClure ’85 was inaugurated as president of Spalding University, in Louisville, and has launched a battle against the academic achievement gap in Kentucky.

Teresa Amott ’72 was named president of Knox College in Illinois -- the first woman president in its 174-year history.

Terrasa Ulm ’99 created a videogame-design curriculum at Becker College in Worcester that is ranked among the top ten in the nation.

Gail Kern Paster ’66, received an honorary degree from Amherst College for her extraordinary leadership as director of the internationally renowned Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

And Rachel Willis ’04, a third-grade teacher in Atlanta, received the prestigious Milken Educator Award, considered the Oscar of teaching.

Smithies are standouts in arts and culture as well.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra named Carolyn Kuan ’99 as its music director.

Cass Bird '99 exhibited a piece in the controversial “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” at the National Portrait Gallery, an exhibition that sparked a national conversation on censorship and freedom of expression.

Jeannie Cho Lee ’90 was named Master of Wine, the first Asian and one of fewer than 75 women in the world to receive that rare designation.

Smith women are at the forefront of protecting our environment.

A 4,000-acre nature preserve in New Jersey was named in honor of Candace McKee Ashmun ’46, who has served as an environmental advocate for six decades.

Pilar Arosemena Aleman ’79 is overseeing the creation of Panama’s new Biodiversity Museum.

Wendy Schmidt ’77, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, donated $1.4 million for a challenge to inspire innovative new methods of capturing crude oil from the ocean surface.

Pilar Arosemena Aleman ’79 is overseeing the creation of Panama’s new Biodiversity Museum.

Aimée Christensen ’91, founder and CEO of Christensen Global Strategies, was named a 2011 global laureate by the Hillary Institute for exceptional leadership on climate change solutions. Aimée is the daughter of Ann Christensen ’56, who is celebrating her 55th reunion this year.

Smith women are leading in business.

Deborah Farrington ’72 was the top-rated female executive — and one of only two women — on Forbes magazine’s Midas 100 List.

Durreen Shahnaz ’89 created the Singapore-based Impact Investment Exchange, the first socially responsible stock exchange in Asia.

Louise Parent ’72, executive vice president and general counsel of American Express, was recognized by the Lawyer’s Alliance for her leadership in supporting AMEX employees in providing pro bono legal services in New York and beyond.

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, aunts, 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.

Now I want to tell you just a bit about the class of 2011, and the common thread of ambition, talent and achievement that links them to all Smith alumnae.

At commencement, 693 new Smith graduates, including 43 Ada Comtock Scholars, left this campus to begin the next chapter of their lives.

They came from 44 U.S. states and 27 countries. Together they completed 844 majors; 151 were double majors. The most popular majors were psychology, government, economics, art and English.

Nineteen seniors have been offered Fulbright Fellowships. They are: Laura Arellano-Weddleton, Elizabeth Boulton, Jennifer DeBerardinis, Darcy Dwyer, Almas Haider, Hiba Jamil, Danielle Kim, Zoe Kosoff, Ramsay Leimenstoll, Margaret Metzler, Katey Pillars, Kimberly Probolus, Kassia Rudd Carmen Say, Lily Seidman, Bethany Singer-Baefsky, Ruth Spurlock, Elizabeth Tuttle, and Lauren Woodard.

Our Fulbright achievements are an honor of which I am enormously proud.

A record 40 seniors applied for Fulbrights this year and 72 percent were first-round finalists.

That remarkable milestone 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.

Fifty-four percent of seniors did Praxis internships, gaining important professional experience in organizations around the world, including England’s Kew Gardens; the department of neurology at Mass General Hospital; the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC; Addis Ababa University School of Medicine in Ethiopia; and Women’s World Banking in Nairobi, Kenya.

Despite a challenging employment market Smith seniors landed on their feet, securing positions at such firms as Accenture, AmeriCorps, Deutsche Bank, DuPont, JP Morgan Chase, M & T Bank, Novartis, UBS, the Urban Institute, Simon & Schuster, the Research Board and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Smithies are entering graduate programs at leading universities around the world, including Arizona State, Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Fordham, Indiana, Oxford, Penn, UMass, the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, USC, and Stanford.

The Peace Corps is still making decisions for 2011 but Smithies entering their ranks will be in exceptional company: with 18 alumnae currently serving, Smith is 13th among all small colleges and universities and the highest ranking women’s college in the country in the number of Peace Corps volunteers.

In athletics, I want to salute the seniors who helped the Pioneers set a number of records this year.

The basketball team, which included senior Jessica Welk, had a standout year, earning its first berth in the NEWMAC tournament since 1998.

In fencing, senior Mia Leinberger placed 5th in the nation in women’s saber, and the club placed fourth in the nation overall.

Senior Katharine von Herrmann, of the crew and ski teams, was named Smith’s NCAA Woman of the Year.

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

Marlowe Dieckmann ’09, former SGA president, will reach the end of her term on the Board of Trustees. Trustees Will Gipson, Annie Morita ’90, Susan Porth ’70 and Phoebe Wood ’75 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 Sabine Jean ’11, the SGA trustee, and Paula Ferris Einaudi ’65.

Since 1993, Tom Riddell, associate professor of economics, has served variously as dean of the first-year class, associate dean of the college and acting dean of the college. As he retires from that office we thank him for his service to thousands of Smith students.

Eight members of the faculty are retiring this year, after decades of exemplary teaching and scholarship. They are

  • Steve Tilley, Biological Sciences
  • Susan Waltner, Dance
  • Sue Freeman, Education & Child Study
  • Bob Burger, Geology
  • David Newbury, History
  • Piotr Decowski, Physics
  • Malgorzata Pfabé, Physics
  • Margaret Zelljadt, German

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:

  • Helen Krich Chinoy, Professor Emerita of Theatre 
  • Bertha Cowan, retired from dining services and purchasing
  • Margherita Silvi Dinale, Professor Emerita of Italian Language and Literature
  • Charlotte Hackstaff Fitch ’34, Professor Emerita of Theatre and Speech
  • Howard Gray, retired supervisor of building services
  • Robert Ingersoll, former trustee
  • Ann Johnson, retired from the controller’s office and the Museum of Art
  • Philipp Otto Naegele, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Music
  • Elliot Melville Offner, Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Printer Emeritus to the College
  • Robert T. Petersson, Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature
  • Jean M. Higgins Quesnell, Professor Emerita of Religion and Biblical Literature
  • Stanley Rothman, Mary Huggins Gamble Professor Emeritus of Government and Director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change

And we remember Sarah Billian, a member of the class of 2011. Our thoughts are with her family at this time. 

As seniors become alumnae, as alumnae return to Smith, a remarkable cycle of support and commitment is set in motion, with the excellence of Smith today made possible by the generosity of every class, every generation, every individual and friend.

I want to close by sharing some wonderful news.

An alumna from the class of 1960 recently pledged more than $16 million to the college in support of Smith’s highest priority and most pressing need: scholarship aid for students with financial need.

This generous pledge is the largest single gift in the 140-year history of the college.

It will provide financial support for students for decades to come. And it is a resounding endorsement of our mission: to provide women of promise access to an education of uncompromising quality.

We thank the alumna, and her family, for this extraordinary expression of support for Smith.

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 all of our alumnae for their generosity.

It is through your commitment, dedication, and belief in our common future that Smith College — your college — educates women of promise for lives of distinction.