Return to New York
The following Letter from the President appears in the forthcoming Fall 2010 issue of Sarah Lawrence magazine
As I flew from Shanghai to Hong Kong on East China Airlines this summer, I came across an article in the airline magazine about a new exhibit called “Greater New York,” featuring young artists working in the “world’s center of art and culture.” Although I have often thought of New York in this way, at 30,000 feet over China the reminder of New York’s cultural influence seemed a striking affirmation of the intimacy and vitality that characterize the symbiotic relationship between SLC and NYC.
This issue of the Sarah Lawrence magazine focuses on that very relationship—the romance between Sarah Lawrence College and New York City and the way members of the SLC community, both transplants and inveterate New Yorkers, contribute to the city. It looks at ways our students from all these places benefit from NYC as laboratory and playground, and often bring the fruits of their experiences back home. (Around 40% percent of our alumnae/i settle in the greater New York area, leaving about 60% to take their portable Sarah Lawrence educations, along with a little bit of New York, someplace else).
Personally, I found it easier to return to New York than to leave it. Having grown up in the area and received my PhD in English literature from Columbia, my first professional move didn’t just take me away from New York, but all the way to Salt Lake City. This was a few years after the appearance of Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cartoon, “A View of the World from 9th Avenue,” which depicted America west of the Hudson basically as an undifferentiated mass up to the Pacific Ocean. But my husband Peter—who had just completed a surgical residency at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital—and I needed to find two academic positions together. The only city that offered this possibility was Salt Lake, at the University of Utah. As we considered our options, we sought advice from two friends of ours raised in Salt Lake City who lived in and loved New York. Had they not loved both places, we never would have heeded their advice to accept the positions.
Our colleagues could not believe our decision. Many could not imagine life outside New York, and many of the most talented students left the profession rather than leave the city.
Our state-by-state drive across the country was meant to convince us that Steinberg was wrong and Utah was actually connected to New York. We promised each other that if one of us hated it, we would leave within three years. As it turned out, we stayed in Salt Lake City for 20 years, made wonderful friends, and raised our two sons. In 1998, we moved west to California, again for exciting jobs, and our family encountered a whole new cultural landscape. We learned to “see the sun the other way around,” as Elizabeth Bishop puts it.
In 2007, when I was offered the presidency of Sarah Lawrence College, I felt the pull of the city as well as the primary magnetism of the College. Indeed, the energy, moxy, and sophistication of our campus atmosphere are bound up with SLC’s proximity to the city—a closer relationship than enjoyed by any other liberal arts college. After 30 years of reading the New York Times and fantasizing about attending the performances reviewed in the arts section, I looked forward to being a Metro-North ride away.
Despite the fact that I lack the time to pursue many of the events I read about, I am thrilled to return to New York (although I wish that our two-career family were together on one coast). Now, when I see Steinberg’s cartoon, I am pleased that both Utah and Los Angeles made it onto the map. And I am happy to be back in what the rest of the world considers to be the world’s center of arts and culture. Sometimes leaving a place helps one recognize how truly special it is.