Year-End Letter to the Community: 2009
August 28, 2009
Dear Members of the Sarah Lawrence Community:
September approaches and with it the prospects and energies of a new academic year. This perennial rhythm reminds us that despite immense economic challenges, we are part of a cycle of renewal. Our mission thrives as students pursue and acquire knowledge, build lifelong relationships with peers, dons, and faculty, and develop through the vitality of the seminar-conference system the capacity to adapt to and engage a world marked by seismic changes.
We have much to look forward to in 2009-10, and substantial work ahead to fortify the College against the continuing uncertainties. As you know, 2008-09 was a year in which Sarah Lawrence College as a community tackled nearly unprecedented economic challenges. Yet we ended the year on the highest of notes: an ebullient graduation, a glorious day, with one of the most influential people in the country, our own Rahm Emanuel '81, delivering a witty, inspiring, and surprisingly emotional address to our community. Speaking to a crowd of 2,500, with another 600 people joining us via our first-ever live webcast of the ceremony, he extolled the value of a liberal arts education -- and particularly his own Sarah Lawrence education. Rahm told our graduates that despite the very difficult labor market, they were prepared with the kinds of skills needed to address the enormous problems we face. "You spent four years learning how to approach any subject -- and in life you will face every subject," he said. He also called on them to serve a cause larger than themselves.
Rahm's inspiring message came at the end of a year when the faculty, students, and staff pulled together and made considerable sacrifices to avoid a potentially severe budget imbalance. We instituted faculty and staff salary freezes, a moratorium on new staff positions and postponement of some faculty searches, a 10 percent reduction in operating expenses, and changes in the College's employee health plan and premiums. Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the faculty's dedication to the College was its decision, by a vote of its membership, to temporarily extend the period between sabbaticals. It is an understatement to say that the community has done a great job responding to an extraordinary set of circumstances.
A sample of highlights and achievements
Despite the challenges, in 2008-09 the campus community flourished in so many ways. To keep this report from overflowing, I can recount only a fraction of the activities, events, and achievements. Some highlights are cited here; more are included in the online Year in Review:
- I mentioned in last year's report that SLC planned to hold an Election Night get-together. The event was a grand success on many levels. Under the large tent on Westlands Lawn, the site of Family Weekend and the Halloween Dance that same week, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff gathered to watch the returns on three jumbo televisions. The election of 2009 galvanized students around the country, and the sense of community on our campus was palpable. We sustained that energy by holding panels to discuss the significance of the election and the global economic turmoil. This included a visit by Bob Herbert of The New York Times.
- Charles Zerner, the Barbara and Bertram Cohn Professor of Environmental Studies, created an interdisciplinary colloquium, "Dominance by Design: The Environment, the Military, and Technics," that brought national authorities to campus to discuss such extraordinary topics as the military uses of the honeybee.
- In March, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, presented the 2009 Longfellow Lecture, highlighting the SLC Child Development Institute's focus on the importance of outdoor play for children. In May, Dr. Joshua Sparrow and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, "America's Pediatrician," spoke to an overflowing house. This fall, the Child Development Institute will premiere When Learning Comes Naturally, the fourth documentary in The Learning Child Series, which will run on PBS stations. The project was made possible by substantial alumnae/i support. Please consult the College's Web site for information about the East and West Coast premieres of this documentary.
- Michael Brown, a planetary astronomer at Cal Tech and discoverer of a planetary body that trumped Pluto's place in the heavens, delivered the popular annual science lecture "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming."
- Gordon G. Chang presented the Adda B. Bozeman Lecture in International Relations, speaking about China's economy in a lecture titled "China Rising or Falling? What Does This Mean for Us?"
- Our annual Poetry Festival, run by students and funded by an anonymous donor this year, continues to be the largest free poetry festival in New York State. It brought an astonishing array of top poets to campus in April, including Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Rita Dove, and C.K. Williams.
The excellence of our faculty continues to draw accolades and recognition in the full range of disciplines and fields. Some honors are reported here and many more are cited in the Year in Review section of the Web site:
- In February, Matthea Harvey was awarded the Kingsley Tufts Award -- one of poetry's most prestigious prizes -- by Claremont Graduate University in recognition of her latest collection of poems, Modern Life.
- Maria Negroni won a top Latin American literary award, the Premio Internacional de Ensayo, for her book Galeria Fantastica (Fantastic Gallery).
- Dennis Nurkse was honored with a 2009 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
- William Kelley received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, which recognizes "outstanding works that contribute to society's understanding of racism and foster an appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures."
- In May, Sara Wilford received a 2009 Champions for Children Leader of the Year Award, presented by the New York State Association for the Education of Young Children.
- Glenn Dynner was awarded a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Jewish Studies to research the economic history of Polish Jewry.
- Melissa Frazier received a Fulbright fellowship to take up residence next spring at Urals State University in Ekaterinburg.
- Mary Dillard received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to participate in its summer institute, "American Immigration Revisited." She spent July at the Library of Congress researching African women immigrants.
SLC's Summer Science Program offered sophisticated, individualized laboratory research opportunities in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and mathematics to our undergraduates. In addition to the fifteen Sarah Lawrence students who participated for five-week or ten-week sessions this summer, for one week we also hosted eight students from Yonkers International Baccalaureate High School, who worked in teams with the Sarah Lawrence students and were mentored by our faculty. All the students gave exemplary public presentations of their work at specially organized symposia. The program was made possible by the generosity and support of Vicki Ford '60, alumna and trustee.
As we venture into 2009-10, the College's strategic planning process, the first such review of long-term priorities and goals in almost 12 years, is accelerating. One certainty is the need for flexibility and adaptability. Thinking creatively about both our short-term and long-term future makes sense now more than ever. Our planning process, initiated more than a year ago (before the economic downturn), draws heavily on the wisdom and experience of faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumnae/i. The process picked up steam throughout the spring of 2009 in subject-specific workgroups and will dovetail with work by our standing committees.
Our goal is to articulate a plan by winter/spring 2010 that sets forth a road map for the upcoming fundraising campaign and charts the steps for improving the visibility of the College as well as the achievements of its extraordinary faculty and students. A core element: preserving the essential strengths and advantages of our pedagogy while addressing students' desire for access to a greater range of curricular opportunities. Increasing applications and ensuring financial aid will be central elements of the plan as well. Enhancing student community and opportunities for internships, service learning, sustainability, global engagement, and diversity are all represented in the effort. And, of course, faculty support is fundamental. Strategic planning should help us hone our priorities and bring nuance to our next comprehensive fundraising campaign when it launches in 2010-11.
As we work to address these priorities, the heaviest lift will be charting a multi-year course to financial equilibrium and growth in the endowment, which, already small by peer standards, has been sapped by the market decline. This fall, our most immediate, strategic focus is on enrollment trends. This was one of the most worrisome years for every college in America, as you know. I am pleased to tell you we have fulfilled our first-year student goal with the same caliber of student we have always enjoyed. Our new dean of admission and financial aid, Amy Abrams, and her team have recruited students who hail from almost every state in the Union and 18 nations, with the greatest representation from the West Coast and Northeast. Thank you to all who were ambassadors for Sarah Lawrence in your communities or with your friends and family, bringing us talented applicants who will thrive at SLC. I believe our strong entering class reflects the enduring value of the Sarah Lawrence philosophy of education, even in tough economic times. A sobering reality, however, is the substantial jump in need we experienced with our incoming class. A larger percentage of this excellent class required financial aid and the average aid increased, putting a strain on our already constrained resources.
Total undergraduate enrollment on the Bronxville campus is estimated to be just shy of our projection of 1,199 students. Graduate enrollment is projected to be 343. In a year of extraordinary hardship for families around the nation, it took extraordinary effort on the part of SLC donors and the Office of Financial Aid to respond to increased need among current students. In spring 2009, College Board of Trustees Chair John Hill and his wife, longtime SLC supporter Marilynn Wood Hill, launched an "Angel Fund" intended to help continuing students cope with newly experienced need because of changing economic circumstances at home. Thanks to the Hills' $500,000 kick-off contribution and subsequent donations amounting to $350,000, the College was in a position this year to help many of its returning students. (Our Angel Fund is still short of its $1 million goal, the amount we project we will need for current students experiencing increased economic hardship.) All told, College grant aid increased by 20 percent this year, six times the rate of increase in tuition, fees, room and board, and more than $1 million beyond our conservative projections including increased need among returning students. We will have to work hard to control costs and increase philanthropy in order to navigate the next couple of years.
As we grapple with the implications of the jump in financial aid, the increased competition for a reduced number of high school graduates, and overall uncertainty in the economic and financial markets (which affects charitable giving), the support and assistance of alumnae/i, parents, faculty, students, staff, and friends of the College will be more important than ever. In 2008-09, our fundraising team, led by Vice President for Advancement Robert Sweet, reported $10.9 million in direct contributions received, which was $1.3 million over the College's target, a significant achievement. Of the amount received, $5.7 million was for endowment, and $5.1 million was for current operations. However, The Fund for Sarah Lawrence received $2.5 million, 7 percent shy of our goal of $2.6 million -- and down $780,000 from the $3.2 million raised in 2007-08. Of concern is the decline this past year in pledges for endowment gifts, which stand now at $1 million, compared to $3 million at the start of 2008-09. There is no doubt that the decline in the larger economy affected giving and pledges throughout higher education this past year. As you make decisions about your charitable giving for the coming year, we ask that you put Sarah Lawrence at the top of your list. Now more than ever, we need the support of our alumnae/i, parents, and friends to ensure we can continue to provide the first-rate, intensive education that is our signature.
New Faces and Facets
On August 1, our new dean of the College, Jerrilynn Dodds, assumed the responsibilities of chief academic officer. She comes to Sarah Lawrence with a strong academic and administrative background, having served most recently as distinguished professor and senior faculty adviser to the provost for undergraduate education at the City College of New York. Jerri, as she likes to be called, previously served as chair of the department of architecture and held teaching appointments in the School of Architecture and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. At earlier points in her career, Jerri taught at MIT, Columbia, Harvard, University of North Carolina, and the University of Minnesota. Her academic focus has been on medieval, Islamic, and Hispanic art and architecture. She earned her BA from Barnard, studied at the University of Paris and University of Florence, and received a PhD from Harvard University. I know that Jerri will be an active participant in the SLC community, and she looks forward to engaging faculty, students, and staff in conversations about the future of the curriculum and scholarship at Sarah Lawrence College.
Students returning to SLC will arrive to find Bates Dining Room transformed after a top-to-bottom renovation by the College's new food service provider, AVI Fresh. AVI Fresh began operations on campus earlier this summer after an extensive competitive proposal and bidding process. A committee of faculty, students, and staff unanimously recommended them for the new contract. As everyone knows, food is a crucial component of community, and we hope that students will agree that AVI Fresh brings a marked improvement to their gastronomic lives.
In our continuing effort to provide all members of the SLC community with effective, accessible, and current forums for communication, the College has unveiled its Facebook and Twitter sites. We encourage you to become a fan of SLC on Facebook and follow SLC on Twitter. Both will be used to post upcoming events, breaking news, commentary, and special announcements. Over the coming year, we anticipate expanded use of the Facebook site and will work with our students to develop our social media sites to make them "hipper." As a visitor to our Web site, you can see that we have implemented a new site design that improves navigation and presents more dynamically the Sarah Lawrence story.
Alumnae/i continue to play an active role in the academic life of the College. In 2008-09, alumnae/i in a wide range of professions came to campus to meet with students and discuss career options beyond SLC. Out in the larger world, our graduates continued to make their mark in many fields, with a number of their achievements reported in SLC in the News. As you browse, please devote time to the Alumnae/i Voices section where graduates, citizens of the world in very different capacities, discuss on video the impact of SLC on their lives. These profiles make clear that our unmatched approach to education is especially well-suited to a world marked by rapid unpredictable change. We prepare graduates to adapt, to be innovative, and to engage in continuous learning. For those less familiar with SLC, Alumnae/i Voices provides a meaningful, substantive window into the purpose and value of a Sarah Lawrence education. These voices also eloquently speak to current members of the community, reinforcing our efforts to sustain and keep vital this College and our purpose.
I look forward to keeping you informed of developments throughout the year.
President, Sarah Lawrence College
Year in Review 2008-09
Again this year, we have put much of what was traditionally shared in a printed President's Report -- including an overview of the year on campus and the accomplishments of the faculty, students, and alumnae/i -- on the College Web site. The online overview includes photos and milestones from 2008-09, along with links to video and other material.