Au Revoir Sarah Lawrence: A Final Conversation with Michele Tolela Myers
Interview by Nicolaus Mills. Photos by Andrew Lichtenstein '88
When you first came to Sarah Lawrence, what appealed to you about the College? This was the first time I had been at an institution that made its values-values that I share-so clear. For example, Harold Taylor, who was the president of the College in the 1950s, took a very courageous stance at a time when a lot of people were not willing to do that.
You're referring to his defense of academic freedom when McCarthyites accused some faculty members of being communists. Yes.
Harold Taylor was arguably Sarah Lawrence's most famous president, in part because he spoke out on public issues like these. How does a modern president deal with public issues? With great diplomacy. When you take a stand on public issues, you bring the institution with you. You can't really deny the connection and say, "I'm not speaking as the president of Sarah Lawrence, I'm speaking for myself." People will always connect you to the institution. Some presidents find it too dangerous to say anything. They are afraid their trustees and alumnae/i won't like what they are hearing. But here, I felt free to speak out publicly on a number of issues.
You've been very outspoken on diversity and affirmative action during your time here. How do you choose the issues you're going to speak out on? They're there. Diversity and affirmative action are issues directly connected to our education. I didn't find it difficult to speak up about them. They are issues I know firsthand.
Are there issues you've stayed away from? I'd have to think. Actually, not very many. [Laughs] I have spoken quite clearly on some political issues. I spoke on poverty, on inequality, on social justice issues. My commencement speech is full of these things every year. And, you know, it's not necessarily just talking about education-it's about fundamental inequalities that need to be addressed in our society.
But I have to say, it's easier to speak about these issues here because Sarah Lawrence is an institution with a past rooted in fighting against inequality.
Another political and education issue you took a stand on was the College Boards-when Sarah Lawrence decided not to consider SAT scores in evaluating applications. How did that decision affect our admission picture? That decision has had a wonderful effect. Our admissions picture is as good as ever, in terms of the students who come here. And we have gotten very good public relations mileage out of it from high school counselors, parents, and prospective students. Grades, writing samples, and teacher recommendations are the best predictors for us on how future students will do. So why have this test which, in fact, can be coached?
What was the message we sent when we dropped the SATs? We aren't a cookie-cutter college. We are individually oriented. We don't give multiple-choice exams. We don't emphasize grade competition.
Is that message as effective as it used to be? Now any number of colleges emphasize the choices they give students and the lack of courses they require. The difference is that we live up to our promises. We don't just give students lots of choices. We give them choices with guidance, with mentoring. We give them a one-on-one education through the conference system, the small seminar, and donning. That's what makes people come here.
When you first came to the College, you decided that you would enlarge the school and improve the campus, and you wouldn't wait until an endowment drive was completed. What drove you to take that gamble? Well, it was a gamble. It still is a gamble. But I didn't think there was any other choice. We could tighten the belt more and more, but the belt, as far as I could see, was already tightened to the max. There was nothing to cut without really cutting the core. After that, the only option would be to dramatically change the nature of the College-change the student-faculty ratio and become a very ordinary liberal arts college.
I told the board, "If we don't do something dramatic right now, there will not be a future to endow." We had to grow, to invest in this place and make it thrive. And I gambled that we could raise the money, and that alums, trustees, everybody would come through. The only way to get people to give money is to have a winner. You have to have an institution that's alive, that's vibrant, that's doing what it's supposed to be doing. Otherwise you're going to become very marginal.
How did you choose your priorities for fundraising? So many college presidents seem to be driven by an 'edifice complex'-they can't build enough. Was that a temptation for you? Not really. I'm not actually a builder. I started with the notion that we needed to shore up the human resources-faculty and students. So scholarships were key. Faculty salaries were key. That's what I did first. Then I began hearing about the state of the visual arts program-the facilities were really not adequate at all. So the one big building I did was the Heimbold Visual Arts Center. And that building had a domino effect. By giving our artists a place of their own it freed up space all across campus for other important needs.