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Speeches & Media

Toward Education Equality

Anonymous $50 million gift kindles dream of expanding access to Smith

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2020–21

A recent report on the rise of women in philanthropy noted two new trends: First, that women are giving to organizations in order to help solve problems; second, that they are making larger gifts during their lifetimes. Both are true at Smith.

I have experienced many special days in my time as Smith’s president, but few are as memorable as September 16, 2020. That afternoon, I received a call from an alumna who said she had “good news”—specifically, she had decided to make a transformational gift of $50 million to the college, designating $40 million for financial aid. Together we decided that the remaining $10 million would go to career services so we can provide new networking opportunities and new programming, particularly for students from low- and middle-income families, to equalize the college experience for all.

Our donor wishes to remain anonymous. All I can share with you is that she told me she wants to give back to her alma mater, which she credits for her successful career.

The problem that this alumna is helping us solve is providing equal access to a Smith education. As I often say, access is in Smith’s DNA—the college was founded with an educational access mission for women. Over the years, alumnae have carried on that mission by establishing more than a thousand endowed scholarships as well as hundreds of special funds—for books, for medical expenses, for Ivy Day dresses and more. Alumnae have been giving back to Smith since the graduation of the very first class.

When we announced the $50 million gift, my thanks to this alumna was echoed across the Smith community in emails, notes and social media posts.

“The news of this astounding gift gave me goosebumps!” one alumna wrote. “I couldn't have attended Smith without financial aid, and got my first job thanks to the career development office. Please tell this generous and insightful Smithie that I appreciate her gift on behalf of future Smithies.”

Another alumna recalled, “I was a student at Smith on a big financial aid package. Inside of me, a million dreams of understanding the world a little better ... keep coming true, because of the people who believe in this sort of education, and making it accessible.”

And a current Ada Comstock Scholar wrote, “I've never known generosity like I have at Smith College. Anytime something goes wrong, there is a Smith faculty, alum, student, or staff member waiting in the wings to offer support, both financially and emotionally…. No doubt this contribution will allow Smith to continue changing people's lives in a profound way.”

The generosity of this gift continues to astonish me. While on the call with the alumna, my eyes welled with tears, and I struggled to find the words to express my heartfelt gratitude. Financial aid is a personal issue for me—like 67 percent of students at Smith today, I received generous financial aid to attend college.

In my first address to the Smith community shortly after being named the 11th president, I made it clear that financial aid is my highest fundraising priority. The reason for this is simple: Access equals excellence. With more financial aid, Smith can recruit, enroll and graduate the most talented and promising students in the world.

This extraordinary gift should inspire us all. For my part, it has made me more ambitious for Smith. For about six years in the 1980s, Smith’s admission policies were need blind, meaning the college admitted qualified students without regard to a family’s economic circumstances. But in the early 1990s, financial strain forced Smith and a number of peers to end that policy. By contrast, a number of colleges and universities, including Amherst, Harvard and Yale, raised large gifts that have enabled them to remain need blind to this day.

Too often, economic inequality leads to education inequality. I want to ensure access to Smith for every ambitious student from every walk of life. During our Women for the World campaign, which culminated in 2016, we raised $120 million for financial aid. These funds have enabled Smith to increase financial aid by 39 percent over the last seven years. This is an astonishing accomplishment that should fill us all with pride; however, we need to dream even bigger.

Since the close of the campaign, we have raised an additional $51 million as part of the Here for Every Voice financial aid initiative—and now we have an additional $40 million from one generous alumna. If Smith could raise an additional $160 million in endowed funds, family circumstances would no longer be a limiting factor in admission to Smith College.

There is a place for everyone in this dream. Every gift, no matter the size, will make a difference and help propel us to our goal. There is a role for Smith clubs, reunion classes, giving circles and individual alumnae to help solve the problem of education access. Smith remains strong because of the generosity of alumnae throughout the college’s history. I invite you to join me in dreaming this dream. Together, we can throw open the doors of opportunity and offer a life-changing Smith education to every qualified prospective student.