A Final Conversation with Michele Tolela Myers
Is additional expansion, increasing the size of the college, a possibility for the future? Not for the moment. I think we have reached our limit with 1,200 students and the proportional number of faculty. If we grew, we would have to hire more faculty in order to maintain our small classes. But we would not know where to put them. There is no space to add more faculty. There is no dormitory room to add more students if we want to remain a fully residential college. Growth always comes at a price. You lose intimacy. It gets harder to know people.
Is there anything you had to leave undone-anything you would have built if you had five hundred million extra dollars? Music. The program is fine, but the facilities need improvement. If there is to be another academic building on campus, it's got to be for music.
Did you get the support you wanted from the trustees on the issues that mattered to you? I was very lucky in this regard. A college president must have muscle to get things done, and that muscle must be delegated by the trustees. If you don't have a good relationship with your trustees, you can't do anything. Eventually they win, because they can fire you. I was absolutely transparent with the trustees. I hid nothing. I wanted them to be a strong board the same way I wanted to be a strong president. Because when you have a strong board and a strong president, you get things done.
Fundraising was just one of your many commitments. How did you decide to budget your priorities? I knew that I would have to spend a good 50 percent of my time fundraising because that is clearly what the institution needed the most. The rest of my time I spent mostly on faculty issues. I didn't spend very much time with student issues. I regret not spending more time with students, but I didn't see an alternative in terms of priorities.
The other money question is the diversity question. Really, a college that doesn't have a large endowment can't be diverse. How do you- I know you're asking a question, but I disagree with your premise.
Okay, it's difficult for a college that doesn't have a large endowment to be diverse. How do we manage it? Actually, we're extraordinarily diverse, given our resources. One reason we are is that a good half of our students are paying the full fare, which is extremely expensive. We are committed to this Robin Hood process of redistributing resources. We are also getting a high number of students-much higher than our academic peers-who are on Pell Grants, which the federal government awards to students with family incomes under $40,000. As a result our students are very economically diverse. Now it doesn't mean we're doing as much as we want to do. There is no question that economic access is an important factor in achieving the diversity that we really want on this campus.
Where does this situation leave students from middle-class families? Well, they borrow, and they leave college in heavy debt. Although we've made some progress here. We are in the top twenty institutions whose students graduate with the least amount of debt. We have done all right. But more and more students need to borrow more and more to pay for their education. That's not good. Middle-class families are the ones I worry about most.
Is this a problem you think that colleges can solve, or is it ultimately something only the government can solve? It's going to be everybody-government, families, colleges. But the government can certainly do more. There ought to be tax incentives for people to borrow for college the way they borrow for a mortgage on a house.
During your time at Sarah Lawrence 9/11 occurred and the Iraq war began. What have these events meant for you and the College? I'm not terribly optimistic about where we are as a country right now. I think people are pulling back into what they know, and what they know is their little group. That's a challenge for us as a college community. We need to be pulling out of the little holes that we create for ourselves. We need to look for the common issues that are important.
What do you think would unify the school more? Is there anything, or is that our nature, that we will never be unified? Well, I think it's our nature partly. We attract highly individualistic students who don't particularly want to fit in with a system. And I think lthat's good. But it makes it harder to pull together as a college.
Has our curriculum kept pace with the changes going on around us? The answer is yes in some very important ways. We've expanded the sciences, and that's a good thing. I think we could still do more. The same with globalization-students need to learn more about the world's countries and cultures. But at the same time we should avoid doing injustice to traditional areas of the curriculum. We need to keep teaching European history, the Age of Enlightenment. You know I'm a French Cartesian, so I think that's very important. But I don't see these areas as mutually exclusive. I don't buy the cultural wars. I think we need all of it, and we should do all of it.
How did you cope with the challenge of evaluating faculty in a school in which the criteria for tenure are less quantifiable than in a traditional publish-or-perish institution? Evaluating faculty was the hardest thing I ever did as president. There is no good way to measure outstanding teaching. It's all anecdotal. It's just heart-wrenching because you never have all the data you want, and the data you do have are soft. The good news is we send people into the classroom to observe. We put a lot of effort into our decisions, and we accept the fact that it's not a perfect process.