From the President's House by Karen Lawrence
I have just completed my first semester away at school. Of course, I have done this before, more years ago than I care to count, as a freshman at Smith College. It is true that this time I live in a beautiful house on campus rather than a dorm room, but I have found that the first semester of a college presidency bears some similarity to the first semester as an undergraduate, exhilarating and a bit daunting at the same time. It is tremendously exciting to land in the midst of the vibrant intellectual atmosphere one will call home, yet leaving behind the familiar means taking on a new role, even a new persona (it feels odd to be recognized on the street in Bronxville or to express a wish and have someone carry it out!). To be entrusted with the welfare of Sarah Lawrence College and those who serve it, to help set the tone and steer the course of this extraordinary institution, is a humbling experience. And there is no place Iâd rather be.
Since moving into the Presidentâs House on campus at the end of July, I have enjoyed a wonderful education. Before the faculty and students arrived in September, a series of 11 breakfasts at the house with the SLC staff taught me how work gets done at the College. I learned just how much the distinctive mission and pedagogy of Sarah Lawrence is embraced by almost every single person employed at the College. People often ask me what has impressed me most in my first months as president. It is this commitment to the pedagogy that is woven so deeply into the fabric of the campus.
Through a series of small dinner parties with students and faculty, I have had the opportunity to learn about the pleasures and challenges of life at Sarah Lawrence. My goal is to have all 365 first-year students over for dinner at the Presidentâs House, as well as all of the regular faculty. Although I worry about that proverbial âfreshman 15â creeping on, these occasions have already helped me gain an inside view of the academics on our campus. I now understand how the seminar and conference system truly fulfills the promise of liberal arts colleges to teach their students how to think and how to establish patterns for lifelong learning. This handmade approach to education is both our greatest strength and our greatest challenge to maintain, since it is labor intensive and, therefore, expensive. Nothing is more important then maintaining our distinctive pedagogy. Another challenge is to continue developing new areas of the curriculum necessary for an education in the 21st century. We must nourish the Deweyan experimental spiritâa deep principle on which the College was founded.
To both maintain our strengths and renew this spirit of experimentalism, we are embarking on a long-term planning process that will include all of those who have built the College into what it is today. Students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumnae/i will discuss ways of preserving what is so distinctive about SLC and keeping it educationally innovative. Building on our existing committee structures, we will begin the process of planning and conducting an open dialogue about the Collegeâs development over the next five to 10 years and how we can enhance the academic and social life of the campus.
The final, and crucial, piece of my first-semester tutelage has come from my meetings with the Board of Trustees and the alumnae/i and parents with whom I visit on my travels around the country. They are helping to provide the long view, the illustrious history of Sarah Lawrence and the optimistic but challenging future faced by all liberal arts colleges, including SLC. How can liberal arts colleges adjust to the changing demographics in the country, in the wake of the tapering educational âboomâ from the children of baby boomers? How can we stem the rising tide of tuition, which threatens to price our college out of reach of many middle-income, as well as lower-income students? And, for Sarah Lawrence in particular, how can we compete with other institutions that possess the rich endowments to replace loans with grants? How can we continue to spend one of the highest percentages of tuition dollars on the classroom experience and also provide living quarters and social spaces that can house both private study and spontaneous interaction for our students?
In planning our future, we will need to address these issues. We need alumnae/i and parents to be involved in our efforts, with advice and financial support. Iâd also like to extend an invitation to you to return to campusâitâs the best way to update your knowledge of this extraordinary college and to reaffirm why so many generations of SLC students feel that their educations have transformed their lives.