Skip to main content

Inaugural Address: “Busy Being Born"

Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, October 19, 2013

Kathleen McCartney Inauguration

Trustees, students, faculty, staff, special guests, and alumnae gathered around the world, I am honored to be standing before you today and grateful for the confidence you have entrusted in me to lead this great college.

On this glorious afternoon, we honor Smith College, a remarkable institution with a proud past and a promising future that we will build together.

I begin my remarks with gratitude.

I am grateful to those of you who have welcomed me today. Alex Keller, Gussie Gronquist, Halley Ofner and Kate Grant, you represent the Smith community—faculty, students, staff and alumnae. Like me, you are immensely proud of Smith. And, like me, you believe deeply in the power of our mission.

Lynn Pasquerella, I am thankful for your colleagueship, in the Five Colleges as well as the historic Seven Sisters. Smith and Mount Holyoke are joined in this Valley and in our commitment to the education of women.

Drew Faust, your greetings from the academy, from Harvard, as a fellow president, a role model, and a friend mean so much to me, as you must surely know.

We are fortunate to have three former presidents of Smith College here today—Jill Ker Conway, Mary Maples Dunn and Carol Tecla Christ. Since the announcement of my appointment last December, each of you has counseled and supported me. I will carry your legacies forward with deep respect for all that you accomplished.

To the trustees, thank you for your confidence and partnership. Thank you for embracing me in leadership.

Many former trustees and alumnae are gathered here today, while others are viewing this ceremony online. In my meetings with you, in the stories you have told me, I have come to know how Smith changed your life. You have told me that a Smith education is so powerful that one Smithie can spot another—across a graduate seminar, a boardroom, a volunteer meeting, or in the aisle of a transcontinental flight—and recognize her instantly as an ally and a friend.

To the students—those of you here with us today, and those watching from abroad—I am energized by your passion. I am inspired every day by the future you represent. If you remember one thing from today’s proceedings, I hope it is this: The mission of this institution is to prepare you—women of promise—for lives of distinction.

To the undergraduate faculty and the faculty of the School for Social Work, I am proud to join your ranks as a professor here at Smith. My academic home could be no richer.

To the staff, I am proud to join your ranks in my role as president. I benefit from your support every day. This team—faculty and staff alike—will ensure that Smith remains a strong and caring institution.

To the delegates here today, representing institutions around the world, know that you honor Smith College—and me—by your presence.

To the members of our local community, including our mayor, David Narkewicz, I am proud to be a resident of Northampton and look forward to partnering with the citizens of this remarkable Valley.

Finally, I am grateful to my friends and family who have traveled from near and far—from Hawaii to South Africa—to be here today.

My journey to this place would not have been possible without the guidance, direction and support of three remarkable women—my mentors, all of whom are here today.

Brenda Steinberg was my adviser at Tufts University. She saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself when she encouraged me to pursue graduate study, in developmental psychology, at Yale University. Two of my mentors from Yale are here. Faye Crosby, who spent many years as a Smith faculty member, taught me the art of teaching when I was her assistant. Sandra Scarr, my dissertation adviser, taught me how to reason like a social scientist when we wrote together in front of her word processor. Brenda, Faye and Sandra, I am deeply grateful to all three of you for the important role you played in my life.

To my four children—Pres, Sam, Kaitlin and Kimberly—I am proud of you and proud to be sharing this moment with you.

To my husband, Bill, thank you for joining me in this big adventure. We are partners in this work.

To my 91-year old father, George McCartney, who is watching online: Dad, thank you for making my siblings and me the center of your life. You gave us the courage to explore the world in all its wonder.

Today is a proud day for Smith, and for me, as we reflect on our past and anticipate our future.

As a developmental psychologist, I have a frame of viewing life. Life is change over time. In my research, I have focused on early childhood development. So perhaps it is not surprising that I present my aspirations for this great college through my observation of a child.

Recently, I was walking home through this gorgeous campus—a botanical garden. I was appreciating its beauty when a young girl, who looked to be about five years old, captured my attention. She was riding a bicycle, and I am guessing that the training wheels hadn’t been off for long, because her father, walking behind her, kept shouting instructions. I first took notice of her as she swerved the handlebars left and right, causing her bike to sway back and forth. “Stay to the side,” her father admonished. Then she rode up the driveway by Park House, turned around, and glided down while pedaling backwards intermittently, so that the bike would brake and accelerate in rapid spurts.

“Don’t go too fast,” her father yelled, a bit alarmed.

Finally she rode in a tight circle around the bricks in front of my home. She looked at me pointedly, as if to say, “Did you catch that?” I smiled at her and said, “You’re getting good at this.” She nodded in agreement. She didn’t hear her father call, “Look straight ahead.” She was too busy learning.

Developmental psychologists like me might describe this young girl as being in a state of flow—absorbed completely in a task, with energized focus and an overwhelming feeling of joy. Learning at its best.

But it’s not all flow. At the heart of every theory of learning is the critical role that frustration plays. Our young girl no doubt fell while learning to ride her bike. And she will fall again. In the pursuit of learning, we fail again and again. In these moments, our frustration motivates us. We strive to reduce frustration, and in so doing, we learn. With each new lesson we are changed.

Young children, like our bicyclist, are eager to learn. The fortunate among us retain this eagerness—an interest in learning new skills, new ideas, new ways of knowing—into adulthood and throughout our lives.

One of my favorite observers of human experience put it this way: “She not busy being born is busy dying.”1 Bob Dylan wrote this lyric, although I confess I changed his pronoun.

I have thought a great deal about Dylan’s words. Busy being born. I love the alliteration. And I love the verb tense: the present continuous tense. For Dylan, birth is a continuous process of transformation, of learning; we give birth to ourselves again and again. In contrast, death signifies complacency, stagnation. Each stage of life offers the learner opportunities to be born, over and over.

For those of us who enter college in our late teens, this stage of life links adolescence with young adulthood. These are the coming-of-age years, a time between the safety of the familial context and the construction of an identity all our own. There is an openness to change, and the time to explore—time before the responsibility of careers, partners and children.

At the best colleges, like Smith, the faculty make the most of this stage. We share our passions for our disciplines, we use the dialectics that occur in our classes, and we foster leadership. We learn from and with our students.

A good education encourages an individual to seek change, to risk change. A strong institution encourages its community to seek change, to risk change.

This remarkable college—with its venerable traditions and its distinguished history—is, at the same time, an embodiment of change.

Sophia Smith envisioned a college where women would receive a rigorous education, the kind that was, in her time, available only to men.

Access to education, then, as now, is the path to equality. The statesman and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois framed it this way: “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled...the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.”2

The right to learn—the right to learning in its fullest form—is a consistent theme of Smith’s history. Malala Yousafzai, the remarkable Pakistani schoolgirl who defied the Taliban, said it best in our time: “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”3

The Smith College presidents who preceded me asked insightful questions about access, the impact of which were felt not only on this campus but also throughout higher education. Can an undergraduate institution educate women beyond the traditional college age? Can we ensure internships for all students? Can engineering, at a women’s college, shape that profession—and, by extension, shape our world?

Smith answered these questions affirmatively and definitively. Smith established the Ada Comstock Scholars Program to enable women whose educations had been interrupted by life circumstances to complete their degrees. Smith founded Praxis, the first internship program in the United States to guarantee a funded summer workplace experience for every student, leveling the playing field for those who cannot forgo summer earnings. And Smith is home to the Picker Engineering Program, a source of enormous pride: the first engineering program at a women’s college.

The impact of a Smith education is evident in our alumnae. Every day, our alumnae break through another glass ceiling, change the way a business operates, propose provocative theories, launch movements.

Smith College: life in the present continuous tense. Going forward, Smith will continue to lead change in higher education. We will embrace challenges as opportunities for change.

As we look to our future, four directions are clear.

First, we will embrace our mission as a women’s college.

Earlier this year, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, observed that women were “no longer the second sex.”4

There has been great progress in the 64 years since Simone de Beauvoir’s classic text was published. But we don’t yet live in a post-gendered world.

Robin Ely, a professor at the Harvard Business School and a Smith alumna, studies gender relations in the workplace. In its most distilled form, her research has shown that work cultures and practices that might appear neutral—evaluation, promotion, compensation—do not, in fact, have equal consequences for women and men; they remain optimized for male cultures of leadership.5 Why? Because gender biases, still prevalent in our culture, are internalized by women and men alike. As such, we fail to see sexism even when it exists, as Faye Crosby has demonstrated persuasively through her research.6

These internalized views are obstacles to needed change. Unless we make the invisible visible, our hopes for an equitable world will remain unrealized.

We make the invisible visible first through reflection and conversation—something that happens organically at Smith, as eyes are opened to possibilities. And then we organize for change, at Smith and beyond.

Smith has been the birthplace of so much social change. We will continue to work for women’s full equality. As Gloria Steinem told me recently, “Whatever the question...women are part of the answer.”

Second, we will expand the power of Smith in the world.

Throughout its history, Smith has served as a leader and model in international education. With its Sister colleges, Smith helped found schools and colleges for women in Asia and Europe. We welcomed to our faculty refugee scholars exiled by war and civil unrest. We established pioneering study-abroad programs, and set national records for Fulbright Fellows. Smith students won 23 Fulbright fellowships this year alone—a remarkable accomplishment. We founded the Lewis Global Studies Center, which has already become a crossroads for international and domestic students and a forum for discussions of global issues.

We will extend our work, because the challenge for this century is clear: We must prepare students to live and work in a global community with cultural fluency and full engagement. Building on our legacy, we will do this in powerful ways: By creating more international internships. By expanding study abroad opportunities throughout the world, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. By investing in study-away opportunities in engineering, science and math. By enhancing our faculty resources in international relations. In short, by ensuring that every Smith student’s education is a global one.

Third, we will innovate.

Colleges and universities today are in the early stages of a grand pedagogical experiment. At its core is this question: how, when and in what contexts does technology enhance learning?

As a leading liberal arts college, a model for so much of what is right about residential education, Smith has the opportunity—and the obligation—to ask smart questions about technology and learning. Can we extend learning in community—the kind of learning that is face-to-face and place-based—through technology? Can new technologies bring the power of the liberal arts to those underserved by higher education? Can we make learning a continuous process, throughout the lifespan, with technology?

Smith’s mission is resilient. The need for liberal arts education has never been stronger. The capacities developed through a liberal arts education—the ability to think critically, to speak and write compellingly, to apply evidence and quantitative analysis, to know the world, its ideas, its culture and history: these are the abilities that graduate programs seek. They are what employers value. They are what the world so urgently needs. As important, a liberal arts education provides a foundation for a fulfilling life.

Technology has a place in the liberal arts, and Smith will have a place—and a voice—in that conversation. Going forward, we will seed pedagogical experiments. We will create new models of blended learning. We will explore the potential of online learning for our alumnae and beyond. Some of our trials will fail. More important, some will succeed, changing the way we teach and the way students learn.

Our fourth direction is toward opportunity. Smith will remain committed to access, as we have been since our founding.

Demography is not destiny. Yet economic inequality has led to education inequality. A recent report showed, in stark terms, the widening gap between rich and poor students in the numbers earning bachelor’s degrees. Thirty years ago there was a 31-percent gap between those groups. Today, that gap has grown to 45 percent. 7

Sixty-four percent of Smith students receive financial aid. Twenty-two percent receive federal Pell grants. Seventeen percent of our students are, like me, the first in their families to go to college. Support of these students is a shared commitment and a proud value that I will uphold.

Smith will engage in the urgent debate around affordability and access that families across the income spectrum are seeking, a national conversation that President Obama has galvanized in recent months. Through our Women for the World campaign, we will ensure access to Smith for every ambitious young woman from every walk of life.

When I went to college, I was carried by the generosity of those who came before me. They didn’t know me, or my family, or my circumstances, but they knew the power of education.

We will embrace Sophia Smith’s vision. Education, she believed, is what does “the most good for the greatest number.”

At Smith, we celebrate the courage to explore the world in all its wonder. This is our legacy, and this is our future. Like the girl on her bicycle, newly balancing, our students—and we—will encounter frustrations on our path, moments of disequilibrium. These moments are gifts. These moments are opportunities. These moments afford the change that is learning.

As individuals and in community, we are busy being born.

1. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Bob Dylan, 1964. © Warner Bros. Inc., 1965, and © Special Rider Music, 1993.

2. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The freedom to learn,” in W. E. B. Du Bois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses 1920–1963, ed. P. S. Foner (New York: Pathfinder, 1949/1970), 228–31.

3. Malala Yousafzai (speech, United Nations Headquarters, New York, NY, July 12, 2013).

4. Christine Lagarde, “What We Can Do to Improve Women’s Economic Opportunities,” iMFdirect (blog), March 8, 2013.

5. Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb, "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers," Harvard Business Review 91, no. 9 (September 2013): 61—66.

6. Faye Crosby, “The Denial of Personal Discrimination,” American Behavioral Scientist 27, no. 3 (January 1984): 371–86.

7. Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, “Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper no. 17633, December 2011. Referenced in The New York Times Opinionator; “No Rich Child Left Behind,” blog entry by Sean Reardon, April 27, 2013.