An Interview With President McCartney: Reflections On Her First Two Years In Office

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Katherine Hazen '18News Editor

As the second year of her presidency at Smith College draws to a close, Kathleen McCartney sat down with The Sophian to reflect on her two years, the progress she has made in the goals she set forth at her inauguration and what she envisions for the future.

What have you learned about Smith during your time here? Is it consistent with what you thought of Smith before arriving? I knew Smith was a special place even before I arrived, but one has to experience this community to know how truly remarkable it is. A staff member told me recently that Smith is her second family. We have staff who serve for more than 40 years. Their commitment to Smith and Smith students runs deep. I’ve also come to realize that being with students is the best part of my job. Students invite Bill and me to many events, and we attend as many as we can: research presentations, sporting events, concerts, plays, teas and much more. There is nothing more fun than the thrill and pride of seeing Smithies in action. My daughters tease me for framing everything as “the best ever,” but being president of Smith is truly the best job ever.

When you delivered your inaugural address, you named four goals for Smith’s future: embracing our mission as a women’s college, expanding Smith’s commitment to global education, innovating academically and remaining committed to access and opportunity.  How do you feel about your progress in these areas, and have these goals changed for you at all? I am proud of the progress we have made in each of these areas, especially with regard to our mission and identity as a women’s college. We have increased Smith’s profile and admission selectivity, as reflected in a record-high number of applications: 5,006. We have made headlines for our commitments to transgender women, our leadership in Fulbright fellowships, our commitments to low-income and first-generation students and the achievements of our alumnae, including two National Medal of Arts recipients and a Presidential Medal of Freedom Honoree. I have asked the Dean of the College Donna Lisker to chair a workgroup on Global Education, and that work is ongoing. Our provost, Katherine Rowe, is leading new academic programming, including a minor in Data Sciences. I was thrilled to announce a $10 million anonymous gift from an alumna for financial aid, which will increase our ability to attract students regardless of family income. An additional goal that has emerged for me over the last two years is to enhance community life, to bring the campus together more often for shared moments of pride and celebration.

Last year’s incident concerning students’ reactions to Christine Lagarde gained national attention; how did you take knowledge from that into this year? That incident and others inspired me to form the Campus Discourse Working Group, which Provost Katherine Rowe has chaired. The group included students, faculty, staff and trustees, and they hosted a range of events this year—on race and politics, on free speech and on gender. They will continue their work next year. Strengthening discourse is ongoing work on every campus, and I am proud that our community is committed to having challenging public conversations and engaging pressing issues of our time. I was very pleased to see several editorials on this topic in The Sophian this year, some of which were written by students.

The issue of transgender admissions became very publicized shortly before you came to Smith; now, at the end of your second year, the policy has changed.  What was the process like for you in all of this?  What was your role in the decision? I am proud of the process we followed to study transgender admissions and proud of the decision the Board of Trustees made, particularly around self-identification. The process, led by the Admission Policy Study Group, was inclusive; they received emails and letters from more than 1,800 members of our community and held small-group meetings and telephone conference calls as well. The clarified policy has been well received and widely praised, including an editorial in the New York Times.

Smith Q&A has expressed some concern, saying “trans women will be admitted to a healthy, supportive environment where they can thrive.”  What is the plan for creating such an environment? Now that the policy is in place, Dean of the College Donna Lisker will chair a group that will develop a comprehensive approach to support all transgender and non-binary students at Smith.