January 25, 2013
I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to the people who have officially welcomed me here today: Betty, James, Donna, and Dahna.
Thank you all for your kind words.
I continue to be overwhelmed by the warm welcome I have received from the Smith community since December 10th. It’s wonderful to have this opportunity to meet all of you – students, staff, faculty, and trustees.
Of course, I am very grateful to the board of trustees for the confidence they have placed in me.
I look forward to working with them in the years ahead as we ensure that Smith remains the college of choice for talented, diverse, and ambitious women.
I must say that I am humbled to be following in the footsteps of 10 extraordinary Smith College presidents, including the four women who have come before me – Jill Ker Conway, Mary Maples Dunn, Ruth Simmons, and Carol Christ.
All have reached out to me, and I know I can count on their counsel and friendship in the years ahead.
I would especially like to acknowledge President Carol Christ for her remarks today as well as for the many ways she is including me in life at Smith.
I know that this transition will be a smooth one, because Carol has been and continues to be a great president for Smith.
Bill and I were so touched when Carol and Paul invited us for lunch over the holiday break.
It will surprise no one to learn that they could not have been more gracious.
Paul had lots of good tips for Bill about serving as the “first gentleman” of Smith.
And Bill is as excited as I am to join the Smith College community, the Five College community, and life in Northampton.
I also want to acknowledge and thank the members of the presidential search committee. I have served on such committees before and I know that it is not easy work.
I join Betty in offering particular thanks to search chair Louise Parent, who encouraged me every step along the way.
And I hope the committee will forgive me if I give a shout out to one member in particular – a spectacular student from the class of 2013, Yasmine Evans. Bill and I thank you for the Smith College t-shirts!
If there is one thing I wish to communicate to all of you here today, as well as to all of you watching this event online, it is this – I could not be more enthusiastic about the opportunity to lead Smith College.
Not all liberal arts colleges have strong identities – but Smith does.
Smith was founded with a vision of social justice for women, and this commitment has informed its development at every turn.
As everyone here knows, Sophia Smith dreamed of equality for women. She envisioned a college that would give women an education equal in quality to the education available to the young men of her time.
Smith is the “perennial blessing” Sophia hoped it would be, and its mission is one I am deeply proud to uphold.
As a young woman, I was profoundly influenced by the feminist movement, which gave me the courage to think differently.
The challenges then weren’t abstract for me.
It was not that long ago when women experienced roadblocks to college access and to leadership opportunities in college. Like most women my age, I have my war stories. And I know now how powerfully a Smith education would have shaped me. I’m ever more passionate about being at Smith for having missed it the first time around.
When I reflect on my career, I can see a straight line headed directly for Smith College.
As an undergraduate at Tufts University, I co-taught a course in the Experimental College on the Psychology of Sex Differences.
In graduate school at Yale, I began to study the effects of childcare on child development.
I continued this work at the University of New Hampshire, as a Principal Investigator on a national study of childcare and maternal employment.
At Harvard, my colleagues and I developed a new doctoral program in education leadership; by design, half of the students in this program are women and half are people of color.
And I learned the value of same-sex colleges from a 20-year collaboration with scholars at the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women.
I know: that’s the place that shall not be named.
But, rest assured: I got it right this time.
One way I know I got it right is from the extraordinary greetings I have received since the announcement of my appointment.
Alumnae, students, faculty, staff, parents – hundreds of well-wishers – reached out, instantly, to affirm what a remarkable institution this is and how it continues to shape their lives or their daughters’ or granddaughters’ lives.
I’ve had messages from China, Greece, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa – from women in their 90s and from students just beginning their studies.
One alumna shared, “At Smith, I learned how to change a tire, how to change myself, and how to change the world.”
Another said: “Although we are a difficult bunch sometimes, it comes from all our passion – we are a loving and supportive community.”
Some of the most moving greetings came from Ada Comstock Scholars.
“Smith is a remarkable place to have landed,” an Ada said. “For BOTH of us.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I heard from a third-generation staff member, who herself has been at Smith for 30 years, and from a faculty member in just his third semester, who said “coming to Smith has been the most wonderful professional experience of my life.”
In addition to greetings, I’ve had advice. Very specific advice.
“Don't be late on Mountain Day,” a first-year wrote. “It upsets some of the students. Don't be too early either. It upsets the students because they can't riot for Mountain Day.”
I’ve already had a number of wonderful invitations.
I’ve been invited to join the crew team at a morning practice. I suspect the coach doesn’t know that I once belonged to the Durham, New Hampshire boathouse, and that my daughter rowed for Wesleyan. I have spent many a wonderful afternoon at Lake Quinsigamond!
I’ve been invited to a Smith-in-Europe reunion in 2014. Trust me – you don’t have to invite me to that party twice!
A faculty member has offered me a guided nature walk on the trails at the MacLeish Field Station. I plan to walk every inch of every trail.
One of my favorite e-mail messages came from a sophomore. It carried excitement and well-wishes and ended like this:
“P.S., Please invite me to your parties.”
Erin, I absolutely will.
My favorite card is also the largest I received. It is handmade with lots of glitter, signed by each and every student in Hubbard House.
As I said the day of the announcement, I plan to begin my presidency with a listening tour that begins today. Together, we will develop a collective set of priorities for the Smith of tomorrow.
For now, I want you to know that there is a longstanding priority of Smith College that I embrace with great enthusiasm: access to a Smith education for all women.
Smith is a leader in the national discourse about college access and affordability for first-generation students and for students from families with fewer economic resources.
Smith is a leader because more than 60 percent of students here receive need-based aid.
Smith is a leader because it plans to increase its endowed financial aid funds by $200 million through the Women for the World campaign.
And Smith is a leader because support for low-income and first-generation students is infused across its culture.
It is a commitment that begins in the recruitment, admission, and aid process; it is a commitment that is sustained across a student’s four years of study; and it is a commitment that extends to a student’s post-college launch.
As you may know, I am a first-generation college student, so these issues are close to my heart.
Last month, The New York Times published a provocative article headlined, “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.”
The article reported disturbing statistics about college access.
For example, there is a widening gap between rich and poor students who earn a bachelor’s degree. Thirty years ago, there was a 31-percentage point difference between rich and poor college graduation rates. Today, it’s a 45-point difference.
The reason? Economic inequality has led to education inequality.
At Smith, we must remain committed to recruiting and supporting students regardless of the resources their secondary schools could offer; regardless of their family’s circumstances; and regardless of society’s low expectations for some.
Education is the civil rights issue of our time.
Education for women and girls is the human rights issue of our time.
I know Smith knows these things.
If the world is only now waking up to the value of women’s leadership it’s because the world is only now catching up to Smith.
That’s not to say that Smith has all the answers.
But what Smith has is the commitment to ask hard questions and the will to seek smart solutions. That’s what drew me to this wonderful place and that’s what will sustain me – and all of us – in the good work we have to do together. We will work hard, but we will play hard, too.
Thank you, again, for this warm welcome.