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The 2020 Election, November 8, 2020

Dear students, staff, faculty and alums:

As we all know, this presidential election marked the culmination of one of the most contested and contentious political races of our times. We have learned, once again, how divided our nation is—divided by race, by class, by gender, by region of the country, by education level, by generation and more. Yet we have also learned that voter turnout can overcome voter suppression; that we can sit with uncertainty and fear, however difficult that may be; that we can stretch ourselves to uphold friendships and family relationships across ideological divides. And we have done all of this in the context of a global pandemic.

Many large glass ceilings were shattered during the 2020 elections across our 50 states. Our vice president–elect is a woman and a person of color. Like many of you, I suspect, I found myself quite emotional as I watched Senator Kamala Harris address the nation last night as the vice-president elect; we have waited a long time for a woman to serve in this role. Further, there have been important victories in Congressional races for women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. More children today will see people leading the country whose identities more closely reflect the diversity of America than ever before. The fight for inclusion and equity continues, but let’s pause to acknowledge these successes.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a professor at Harvard Law School and the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, commented, “The election crystallized American promise and American peril.” Given this, I have found myself reflecting on higher education’s role as we work to strengthen our democracy. How do we learn to listen and to speak across our differences? How do we learn to discern truth from falsehoods? How can we embrace the fact, in the words of Robert Kennedy, Jr., that “Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy”? These are questions we will answer together, in community, knowing that change takes patience and faith.

In 2021, with the inspiration and guidance of Professor of Film and Media Studies and Kahn Institute Director Alexandra Keller, as well as Provost and Dean of the Faculty Michael Thurston, Smith College will once again have a themed year, this time on Democracies. We will host speakers, symposia, exhibitions and performances—across the curriculum—to examine what constitutes democracy today, what forms it takes around the world and what threats it faces. Soon, I will announce an Innovation Challenge Grant program to fund ideas from students, staff and faculty. I invite you to mark your calendars for Tuesday, February 23, at 7 p.m., when we will host our first Democracies project via a Presidential Colloquium with Harvard University Professor of History Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States. Fittingly, her talk is titled “This America/That America.”

We have been tested during 2020. Again and again, I have found myself counting my blessings, to find strength, as we confronted so many challenges both as individuals and as members of the Smith community. Today, I am filled with optimism for two reasons. The first is that the president-elect, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has pledged to unify us, which is what a divided nation  needs to heal. The second concerns youth today. For 38 years I have worked on three college campuses, surrounded by young people whom, I have learned, we can count on to improve and strengthen our democracy. Students, I look forward to welcoming many of you back to campus this spring. This country needs your unwavering idealism and your audacious voices—and so do I.


Kathleen McCartney