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Together for Smith: A Message from President Kathleen McCartney

June 28, 2019

Dear Members of the Smith College Community:

At the close of the fall semester, an Ada Comstock Scholar visited me during my open office hours in College Hall to say goodbye for the semester and leave me a holiday card. We spoke for a little while, and she told me how Smith had changed her life in just a short time. After she left, I opened her card and read her simple, heartfelt note that ended with: “You are changing our lives and stories without even knowing it.” I think it was the best end to a semester I’ve ever had.

Her message resonated because it served as an important reminder of how deeply meaningful our work is—as educators, mentors and friends—in lifting up and supporting a new generation of leaders, thinkers, creators and advocates.

As we look forward to the summer, I want to celebrate some of the stories and accomplishments that illuminate the many ways, both individually and collectively, we have strengthened our community. We have so much to be proud of.

More and more high school students are seeing the power of a Smith education and want to come here to experience it. In many ways, women’s colleges like Smith are undergoing a renaissance. A recent New York Times article noted that, especially in our current political climate, applicants are embracing the idea of studying at a place that encourages women to reach their full potential. This is reflected in our own admissions. This year, we received 5,597 applications for the class of 2023, the second-highest number in our history. In the past five years, applications to Smith have increased by 25 percent, and we experienced a 52 percent bump in early-decision applications—indicating that Smith is the first-choice college for a growing number of applicants.

Creating a campus environment where everyone feels welcome is the most important work we are doing together. To encourage everyone’s best thinking, we once again sponsored an Innovation Challenge grant program, funding 14 proposals focused on inclusion and equity. Among them was a very successful Dining With Diversity program, in which more than 70 students and alumnae of color gathered over dinner to share their experiences, and a My Global Story initiative, which will collect distinctive narratives of members of our international community.

On April 10, we came together as a community for “Inclusion in Action,” a remarkable day of learning, listening and leading around issues of diversity and inclusion. The conference featured a keynote address from Harvard professor Anthony Jack, 60 workshops, roundtable discussions and performances. The day was an opportunity for us to think about who we are and who we want to be. Important recommendations emerged from the conference, and from the student activism that followed.

This past year, Smith has revised campus policing policies and instituted anti-bias training for all faculty and staff. Going forward, we will launch an affinity housing program in the fall and hire additional staff to focus on student needs. We will continue to work in solidarity to create a campus culture that inspires a true sense of belonging for everyone. Leading us in this critical work as of July 1 will be Professor Floyd Cheung, who was recently named vice president for equity and inclusion.

After spending a year surveying students and conducting research among peer institutions, the Residential Experience Working Group—led by Susan Etheredge ’77, dean of the college and vice president for campus life—released a set of eight recommendations for building community, supporting inclusion and improving the residential experience for all students. My leadership team looks forward to implementing the group’s good work in the months ahead.

It has been exciting to watch the progress of the Neilson Library renovation project. In the past few months alone, the structural design—including the frames for the new “jewel box” extensions on the north and south sides of the building—has become much more visible. We expect to have the roof installed by the start of the fall semester. In the meantime, we honored a longstanding building tradition by inviting the community to sign the last beam before it was placed in early May. So many people wanted to add their names or compose a message that we had to bring in a second “last” beam.

Our commitment to the environment and sustainability garnered us national recognition when Smith College received a Marks of Distinction award from Second Nature for a solar energy-purchasing project the college developed with four other leading liberal arts institutions. In the fall, we will launch our Year on Climate Change initiative by sponsoring a conference on climate equity and justice, on October 4–5. Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and we all can be proud that Smith is putting its resources behind solutions.

Ensuring access to a Smith education has been a priority of mine since I assumed the presidency six years ago. Today, we award close to $80 million a year in financial aid to about 67 percent of our students, making us a true leader in opening the doors to education for students from all backgrounds. In May, we launched Here for Every Voice, an ambitious effort to raise an additional $75 million in scholarship aid for students. The success of this initiative will have an enduring impact on our ability to support the dreams and aspirations of students for generations to come.

From scoring major prizes in the Draper Business Competition to being named among the nation’s top scholar-athletes, students are taking full advantage of the Smith experience and living up to their potential as innovative thinkers, makers and doers. On the national stage, a dozen physics students made it clear that change is afoot in that traditionally male-dominated field—and it’s being led by Smithies. Closer to home, Smith’s A-Super-NOVA team won Best in Show at this year’s Five College DataFest.

Faculty are the heart of our enterprise, and we had the pleasure of recognizing the impact of their work last fall when we awarded the Kathleen Compton Sherrerd ’54 and John J.F. Sherrerd Prizes for Distinguished Teaching to three exemplary teachers who, as the prize states, “show outstanding skill in fostering student learning and engagement.” We welcomed new faculty, and in the spring, we bid a fond farewell to four faculty members who retired this year. 

Throughout the year, we had the privilege of hearing from an array of thought leaders, advocates, activists and scholars. At Rally Day in February, we honored a stellar class of Smith College medalists, all of whom are fulfilling Sophia Smith’s hope that Smith graduates would use their education for the good of the world. As part of our Presidential Colloquium series, we welcomed Me Too movement founder Tarana BurkeSo You Want to Talk About Race author Ijeoma Oluo, and philosopher and scholar Martha Nussbaum to share their perspectives on some of the most important issues of the day.

Last month, we were saddened to learn of the death of Adelaide Cromwell ’40, Smith’s first African American faculty member. Adelaide was a steady and inspiring presence on campus, regularly sitting front and center at our annual Otelia Cromwell Day celebration, named in honor of her aunt, the first African American graduate of Smith College. Adelaide was a pioneer in her own right, not only breaking the color barrier at Smith but also founding Boston University’s African American studies program. We proudly honored Adelaide with an honorary degree in 2015 for her contributions to our understanding of race, culture and the Black experience.

We closed the academic year by sending 685 graduates out into the world with this powerful call to action from our Commencement speaker, labor activist Ai-jen Poo: “We need you to take responsibility for the whole—for the whole entire project of taking this vision of democracy into the future—running it all. And doing it differently. Doing it together. With a whole lot of empathy.”

Ai-jen Poo’s message of unity and change echoes our commitment to doing better and bringing our best selves to every endeavor to move Smith—and our world—forward. Thank you for the role you play every day in fulfilling our mission and making Smith stronger. I invite you to watch a video that showcases some of the uplifting and meaningful moments of the past year.


Kathleen McCartney
President, Smith College