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Remarks to the Smith and Amherst Black Alumnae/i Mini Reunion
President Kathleen McCartney, October 6, 2018, Washington, D.C.
I am honored to be with you tonight as you celebrate your shared history as graduates of two remarkable institutions: Smith College and Amherst College.
This is an unprecedented reunion, and I want to take a moment to thank the organizers. Linda Smith Charles, Smith class of 1974, and Richard Ammons, Amherst class of 1974, have done an exceptional job putting together a weekend of connection, reflection, and celebration. I am grateful to be able to share this moment with you.
I also want to thank Beverly Morgan-Welch, Smith class of 1974, the associate director for external affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which we all had the privilege to visit today.
Beverly’s work ensures that we as a country understand and appreciate our full history. As Beverly has said, “The influence Black people have on America begins at the country’s beginning and permeates every part of American life. We just don’t know it. When we know it, we will be a different America.”
THE POWER OF EDUCATION
Our two colleges—both among the best in the country—share values of excellence, access, diversity, equity and justice.
Sophia Smith founded her namesake college with the hope that its graduates would use their education to do “the most good to the greatest number.” In a similar vein, Amherst College alumni have—from the college’s earliest days—been guided by the motto, “Let them give light to the world.”
Both of these principles of “doing good” and “giving light” speak to a larger vision of action, activism and leaving our communities better than they were before.
I am addressing you tonight in the context of a profoundly divided political and social climate—in this country, around the world and on many of our nation’s campuses.
I know many in the Smith community are troubled by an incident that happened on our campus this summer, in which a student of color was approached by Campus Police, because a Smith employee reported seeing someone who appeared to be “out of place.”
As you well know, the incident is part of a broader phenomenon of black people being questioned while simply going about the business of their daily lives. These incidents are not new but have become more visible because we record them with our cell phones and use social media as a tool of activism.
We need to do so much more as a country to redress these wrongs. We need better prevention and intervention.
Part of the answer lies in education—we need to eliminate the opportunity gap in education. There is no achievement gap; there is only an opportunity gap.
To make this happen, we need leaders who are willing to step forward, speak out and take audacious action to make our world better. The kind of leaders that Smith and Amherst have always produced.
We need leaders like Amber Scott, Smith class of 2007. Amber is using her personal experience as the first in her family to go to college to help prepare other first-generation students for the rigors of higher education. In the fall of 2016, she launched Leap Year, an Atlanta-based program that is making college a reality for young people who might otherwise believe it is out of their reach.
Amber reminds us: “Right now, we know that only one in 10 low-income students will graduate from college across the country. They have so much potential. We just need to give them the right opportunities.”
We need leaders like Phoebe Haddon, Smith class of 1972, who, as chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden, is expanding higher education access for working families in New Jersey.
And we need leaders like Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Smith class of 1988, who, as the first African American diocesan bishop of the Episcopal Church, is spreading a message of compassion, unity, and hope to congregations in and around Indianapolis.
For many of you, learning to be a leader began at Smith and Amherst. And you did much of that learning together.
Many of you were able to take courses on both campuses, extending a sense of community across the Connecticut River.
Together, you hosted events for black students, including—from what I’ve been told—some legendary parties through the years. You formed friendships and connections that endure to this day.
When serious systemic change was needed, you advocated for it, often taking matters into your own hands when our institutions failed to live up to your rightful expectations.
At Smith, a seminal moment was the formation of the Black Students’ Alliance in 1968, at a time when important conversations were occurring across this country about the experiences of black Americans and about the experiences of black students at colleges and universities nationwide.
Throughout its 50-year history, BSA has been a critical touchstone for black students who come to Smith seeking meaningful connections with their peers. Last spring, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of BSA on campus, during the Women of Color conference. The celebration gave the campus community an opportunity to pause, reflect and express gratitude for this enduring organization.
On that note, I want to recognize Mittie Jordan, class of ’75, whose sister, Wanda Jordan Birch, class of ’70, was BSA’s founding president.
I am grateful to Wanda, Mittie and all of the student leaders who, for 50 years, have shown vital leadership in heightening awareness of the issues facing black women on our campus and across the country.
Beyond the founding of the BSA, our students pushed for better representation across the curriculum, among the faculty and in the composition of the student body. Students led movements for the creation of an Afro-American studies major in the early 1970s and partnered with the college to successfully increase the representation of black women in entering classes.
After a series of racial incidents on campus in the late 1980s, some of you in the room tonight helped organize protests to advocate for the hiring of more faculty of color and to create more multicultural spaces on campus. The impact of your activism is still being felt on our campus today. At Smith, we now have 11 unity organizations—groups where students support one another and where students celebrate their cultures.
THE WORK AHEAD
Although we have made progress, our work is unfinished. At a conference on inclusion at the University of Pennsylvania last month, one black leader said, “The work will always be unfinished.” As you know, our work to promote racial equality must be sustained.
From our own histories—and from the stories you’ve shared with me—we know that our colleges did not always treat black students with respect or dignity. To this day, we sometimes fail to live up to our values and commitments.
As I told my community in the wake of this summer’s incident, it is clear that Smith has a great deal to do to ensure that the college is a place where students of color feel they belong.
Every college community needs to work harder to make our students of color feel valued intellectually and socially as members of our community.
Dare I say that they should feel respected, appreciated and loved.
We can and must do better.
As a white person, I am coming to understand the privilege that accompanies my identity.
I know I can never fully understand the impact of race-based microaggressions, slurs, differential treatment or violence.
But as an ally I can stand beside you and with you to oppose racism in all its forms and to support full inclusion of every person.
And as president of Smith College, I can take action by incentivizing change on our campus and beyond.
I recently had a heartfelt conversation with an African American alumna from the class of 1985. We talked about ways to make our community stronger, better and richer through diversity and inclusion. It is her dream that Smith becomes the standard-bearer of this work and provides a model for other institutions to follow.
It is my dream, too.
Advancing inclusion, diversity, and equity is a pillar of Smith’s new strategic plan. It is a foundational commitment that underscores every initiative, every idea we have for Smith’s future.
I want to highlight several initiatives that are underway.
Beginning this month, all faculty and staff members at Smith will be required to participate in mandatory anti-bias training. This is a first step toward equipping members of our community with the tools they need for self-reflection and helping us address questions related to difference, privilege and personal responsibility.
Our faculty and curriculum are increasingly diverse, but there is so much more to do. At Smith, we are investing more in our efforts to recruit, support and retain an exceptional cohort of teacher-scholars from underrepresented groups. I am working with the provost to make a number of target-of-opportunity hires at the senior level. We need faculty members of all races to serve as leaders on our campuses.
For the third year in a row, I am funding a number of new diversity and inclusion-related initiatives through an Innovation Challenge grant program.
We are currently funding 16 projects—all created by students, faculty and staff. Examples include programs to…
- Help African and Caribbean students build career networks
- Train students to support Dreamers on campus and in the local community
- Ensure equitable access to our mental health services for students of all identities
We have also expanded my presidential colloquium speaker series. In the coming weeks, our students will have the opportunity to hear from…
- Ijeoma Oluo, who will speak about her national bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race
- Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who will speak about his work to promote diversity and equity in STEM fields
- Pam Bosley and Stasha Rhodes, two leaders who will speak about their work to have common-sense gun laws
I have put significant resources behind our admission efforts to recruit more students of color to Smith—and it is paying off.
For the class of 2022, we saw a 3 percent increase in the number of applications from domestic students of color, and a 6 percent increase in the number of applications from international students in just one year.
Overall, 32 percent of students at Smith are people of color. That’s up from 25 percent a decade ago.
These students are our world’s future leaders.
In you, the alumnae, our black students find mentors and role models. Your stories about your college experiences inspire our students’ own journeys. Your wisdom and counsel fortifies them during challenging times.
You have welcomed our students into your personal and professional networks, invited them into your homes and communities, and ensured that they feel supported and cared for as they launch their lives beyond our campuses.
I am sure all would find much inspiration in this gathering just as our student ambassadors have. By your own example, you show our students the power of their voices and the limitlessness of their potential.
Your stories, your successes and the changes you make in the world shine brightly back on Smith and on Amherst.
Thank you for including my husband and me in this special evening.
To the Smith alumnae, thank you for your support of my leadership.
However imperfect our world, the sense of common purpose in this room tonight gives me great hope.