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Welcome to the Start of the 2020–21 Academic Year, August 31, 2020

Dear students, staff and faculty:

With the start of classes approaching, my daily walks through the campus have taken on an even deeper resonance. Our grounds and gardens are beautiful as the roses bloom a second time, the walk along the river is as restorative as ever and the new Neilson Library is breathtaking; however, I miss the people that make this college come alive. I miss connecting with students, staff and faculty as we stroll through the campus together. And students, I miss seeing your joyful faces as you connect and reconnect with your friends.

I want to begin with a statement of profound gratitude to our talented and dedicated staff and faculty, who have worked hard to adapt the campus and our fall courses to our all-remote context. At every step, they have been committed to providing a supportive, engaging and inclusive learning environment for students. These values are at the core of a Smith education, and I'm proud to be part of a community who holds them at the center of their work.

This fall, my highest priority for our all-remote semester is keeping the Smith community strong. In these isolating and uncertain times, we are called upon to keep one another connected, supported and uplifted. I write to share a number of initiatives we are launching to sustain and celebrate our ties to one another while many of us are not on campus.

Visiting speakers

We have a powerful group of speakers scheduled for the 2020–21 Presidential Colloquium Series and for Cromwell Day, who will address themes vital to our community and our world: racial justice, the U.S. elections, feminist activism, environmental sustainability, immigration, disability rights and more. All programs will be offered virtually so that the Smith community around the world can tune in. Please plan to join me on Wednesday, September 9, for the first Presidential Colloquium, which will feature activist and organizer Eric Ward giving a talk titled “Authoritarian State or Inclusive Democracy? What We Can Do Right Now.”

Individual and small-group connection

I am deeply grateful to our talented and dedicated faculty, who have worked hard to adapt their fall courses to our all-remote context and have redoubled their commitment to inclusive teaching and student support. Academic advisers will be in active contact with advisees, and faculty will be offering frequent and varied opportunities for individual remote contact with their students. To connect students to the curriculum and co-curricular opportunities, we are launching a new set of student support resources and programs, including Campus Life Connections (CLiC). Through CLiC, new students, organized in groups of 15, will be paired with a CLiC adviser from the staff to help them build virtual connections, navigate the range of resources and opportunities across the college, and develop a strong sense of belonging. Whether approved to be in residence on or near campus or residing elsewhere, every new student will have access to a CLiC adviser, whose work will be complementary to that of the student’s liberal arts adviser.

Experiential learning

The Wurtele Center for Leadership will be launching a series of leadership learning modules—which students can access either on their own or as a set of Zoom-based synchronous workshops—on public speaking and presentation and on the art of leading teams; the latter is open to students, staff and faculty. The Design Thinking Initiative continues to expand its virtual makers’ space by providing kits of materials and tools to students on and off campus, via contactless curbside pickup and mail. In late August, the Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center held its annual Draper Competition virtually and will continue to offer virtual programming and support for students interested in entrepreneurial projects, business education and business plan competition.

Toward racial justice

As I write this letter, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, lies in a bed in a Wisconsin hospital after being shot seven times by a police officer, another horror born of anti-Blackness. I am encouraged by the many forms of direct action, including the walk-outs by many professional athletes, led by the basketball players on the Milwaukee Bucks; the proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which includes a range of policies to prevent police violence; and the toolkit created by Black Lives Matter to share lessons to ensure that “actions are centered on healing justice.” I am encouraged by the work in our campus community, too. Even though we are separated this fall, we must remain laser-focused on action to advance equity and inclusion at Smith College. Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Floyd Cheung and I are grateful to the more than 200 of you who have read and responded to the draft plan we issued in July, titled “Toward Racial Justice at Smith College.” Your comments have helped us identify points of agreement, areas for further discussion and gaps in our thinking. Beginning in early fall, every unit of the college, including my Cabinet, will engage in racial justice education, reflection and action planning as outlined in the plan.

The 2020 elections

As we approach one of the most consequential elections of our time, I want to commend the work of the student group Smith Votes, a nonpartisan coalition of student political organizations and public interest groups that is mobilizing to increase student voter registration and help students get to the polls regardless of where they are living. Through partnerships with the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and TurboVote, they are working to increase engagement and awareness around all local, state and national elections. In alignment with this work, I will be hosting a series of virtual teas with students in the coming weeks; I hope to learn more from our students about their thoughts on the upcoming elections, especially concerning national and global issues important to their lives.

As we all know, classes start tomorrow, the beginning of what I know will be a semester filled with new lessons about how we learn and live. We will all work hard this fall, but we will play hard, too. Let us gather together tonight, albeit virtually, and celebrate as a community at Convocation.

Stay safe and be well.


Kathleen McCartney