Big Ideas: SLC as a Pioneer
Sarah Lawrence has always been the kind of place where a faculty member can create a new field of academic study and where leaders can put actions at the service of ethics.“
“The College gives faculty the freedom to think creatively and pursue the ideas they want to pursue,” says Susan Guma, dean of Graduate Studies. “The school has always valued experimentation.” And throughout Sarah Lawrence’s history, such experimentation has resulted in curricular and programmatic groundbreaking.
Take 1969, for example, when the faculty member was Melissa Richter ’47 (science) and the new-born field was genetics counseling. Richter had realized that, in order for the public to understand the jargon flowing from the emergent field of genetics, it would need professional translators—so she started Sarah Lawrence’s graduate program in Human Genetics. Over the next 25 years, director Joan Marks ’51 developed the program and the new field of genetics counseling; both are now well-respected entities. And in 1980, Marks founded the graduate program in Health Advocacy—the first and only program that formally trains students to be liaisons between patients and the country’s labyrinthine health-care system.
With that much creativity around, big things are bound to happen.”
In 1972, history faculty member Gerda Lerner founded the first graduate program in Women’s History, which focused on people and issues largely ignored by traditional scholarship. Fresh from the program, the first graduates went to Washington, D.C., and convinced the Government to establish Women’s History Week, which was to become Women’s History Month.
In 1937, psychology faculty member Lois Barclay Murphy started the Nursery School, later renamed the Early Childhood Center. More than six decades later, it remains a “laboratory pre-school,” giving psychology students a chance to work in the field with young children, while bringing Sarah Lawrence’s learner-centered philosophy to pre-school students.
Faculty members aren’t the only ones with big ideas. While dean of the College, Esther Raushenbush started the Center for Continuing Education in 1962. At that time, if a woman left college—whatever the reason—there was no way for her to finish her degree. The Center welcomed older students, allowing them to complete or even begin their undergraduate work. It was one of the first continuing education programs in the country and is still a model for other schools.
SLC presidents and boards of trustees have come up with a few pioneering ideas of their own over the years. In the late 1980s—before the end of the Cold War—President Alice Stone Ilchman traveled to the Soviet Union, with the presidents of Middlebury and Swarthmore, to establish an academic exchange program with the Soviet Union, welcoming some of the first Russian exchange students to America’s small, liberal arts college campuses. Less than 20 years later, President Michele Tolela Myers signed the papers to make the new Cuba program a reality: the first semester-long program enrolling liberal arts college undergraduates at the University of Havana.
And sometimes a big idea results not in a program, but in a statement of belief. In the early 1950s, Harold Taylor was one of the few college presidents to defend academic freedom in that era of red- baiting hysteria, maintaining that, without academic freedom, an educational environment would fail to foster independent thinking among students. Three decades later in 1985—this time to voice the school’s opposition to apartheid—the board divested the College’s portfolio of all holdings in companies doing business in South Africa.
Where do you find the pioneers? Look to the College’s leadership, says Dean Guma. “The presidents are the ones who identified these great, innovative teachers and brought them to the school. With that much creativity around, big things are bound to happen.”