A Conversation With The President

A Conversation With President Karen R. Lawrence

By Marek Fuchs (writing), Photo by Charles Gauthier

Karen Lawrence

A Joyce scholar who still plies her trade in the classroom, Karen Lawrence has been president of Sarah Lawrence College since 2007, a period of significant achievement and challenge. We recently sat down in her Westlands office on a beautiful midsummer afternoon for an informal conversation about Sarah Lawrence’s past, present, and future.

Karen, either in big broad strokes or colorful little details, what is Sarah Lawrence all about?

People throw around the word “unique,” but I think Sarah Lawrence truly is. I’ve taught in a number of schools—excellent ones—but I think what happens around seminar tables and in conferences here is unparalleled. Students really seem to expand, aren’t afraid, aren’t averse to intellectual risks, and take pleasure in learning. Many colleges talk about that, but my own sense is that Sarah Lawrence delivers.

It is interesting, right, that uniqueness can endure institutionally over time? Uniqueness is not necessarily a word you’d associate with institutions and time.

Right, but that’s why Sarah Lawrence endures. When the recession hit, I was talking to a president of a liberal arts college with a stellar reputation. He said, “The good thing for you is that Sarah Lawrence has a signature and is distinctive. Generic institutions, no matter how good, are going to have a hard time differentiating themselves. You won’t.” He said he envied me that. I agreed and added that I envied his billion-dollar endowment! We both had a good laugh, but I think that says something about how Sarah Lawrence is able to do mighty things in the world with fewer resources than many of our peers. It’s a challenge, and also a historical feature of the place.

How does your work as a Joyce scholar inform your work as a president?.

Sensitivity to language, analyzing what’s said and understanding what isn’t, appreciating the comedy of the everyday and the desire to transcend it—these abilities, hopefully honed through reading Joyce, are very useful tools for a president. And the pleasure in the exchange of ideas pertains to both, whether scholarly debates about a page of Ulysses, discussion of a policy about student housing, or the selection of a faculty colleague; the expectation is always that you are going to discuss ideas, often passionately and strenuously, and come to some sort of resolution.

From the vantage point of the classroom, what differences do you see in Sarah Lawrence students versus other students?

Students here are adventurous. They are not running in a maze where they smack into a wall when someone tells them that their interest resides in another discipline. Students here think it's natural that knowledge crosses boundaries. That’s great.

That sense of intellectual adventure seems carried along the genetic code of the institution. Or maybe part genetics and partly carried in the structure of the place, with conferences …

Conferences particularly, I think. I’ve always been very involved with students, as a teacher, but making an appointment that you both keep and prepare for—that’s different from typical faculty/student interaction, and it creates an extended dialogue that pushes you both.

In terms of your presidency, what's been your greatest accomplishment?

I think it’s developing a sense of community, particularly among students. My inaugural speech was about community and how a college so focused on developing individuals could gather those individuals together, so they felt they belonged to each other. Every year since I have come to Sarah Lawrence, I have invited all first-year students for dinner at the President’s House in small groups, which has been a good way to get to know them and to hear what’s on their minds. I have tried to create an intellectual and social atmosphere in which students, staff, and faculty feel comfortable coming to visit, eat, and talk. We also welcome guest speakers to campus with special receptions and dinners at the President's House with our own faculty, students, and alumni. It’s a particular pleasure when you have a dinner party and people leave thinking, what an amazing conversation. Visiting speakers often comment on how impressed they are with the quality of the discourse of our faculty and students. The admiration when these speakers visit is reciprocal. That is all part of the community.

Certainly. Dinners in that house while sitting next to the likes of John Irving, Barry Scheck, and Adam Gopnik have been some of the most enjoyable of my life, I think. Though John Irving is my idol, and I was too intimidated to squeak out a single word.

Ha! That’s right—I remember that.

In terms of fostering such a vibrant community well into the future, can you touch upon the Barbara Walters Campus Center?

It is going to be a house that will truly serve as the campus center. Right now, we can’t fit more than 400 members of our community under the same roof. For larger gatherings, we are at the mercy of the weather. The Barbara Walters Campus Center will house academic spaces, social spaces, our radio station, and student clubs, all knitting the campus together. Barbara Walters gave an incredible gift, the largest in the history of the College. Now our work is to raise the other half so that we can get this transformative building built.

What have been your biggest challenges?

Well, I must say my timing could have been better. I arrived in 2007 so excited to learn everything about the College. Two months later, the stock market went through the floor. The financial crisis has changed higher education, certainly liberal arts colleges. It has, though, also focused the mind, as Rahm Emanuel ’81, one of our illustrious alumni, once said. We solicited quite a few million-dollar grants. The Mellon Foundation has been wonderful, enabling us to internationalize our campus by offering a new Chinese language program, a new orientation program for international students, and much more. Mellon also awarded us a grant to foster environmental studies, which culminated in our partnership with the Center for the Urban River at Beczak (CURB), a research and teaching facility along the Hudson.

Alumni, too, have supported these efforts. Barbara Cohn MA ’70 and Vicki Ford ’60, MSEd ’87 have supported us with donations for a laboratory and water monitoring stations at CURB. Other alumni have supported summer science initiatives. We also received a five-year grant from the Blavatnik Family Foundation to develop a program and curriculum in arts and technology. And an anonymous foundation granted us funds to start a media innovation lab. This support has enabled us to hire new faculty in fields we didn’t offer before and deepen some areas of strength.

So am I glad we went through the recession? No. No one is. But I’m proud of the fact that we’ve moved forward creatively and according to our values despite the constraints. I’m proud that in 2014, 35 percent of our students identified as students of color and 19 percent were international, in contrast to 2007, when 20 percent of our students identified as students of color and 7 percent were international. We have worked hard to make the College an exciting community of people who don’t all think alike or come from the same background.

As part of this effort, we’ve been committed to socioeconomic diversity. We now spend twice as much annually on financial aid as we did in 2007. For a small tuition-dependent school, that’s a tall order. But the College is more diverse and vibrant than ever. That’s important.

Talk to me about The Campaign for Sarah Lawrence.

It’s a natural pivot because the largest pool of funds that we’re seeking is for student scholarships to help make Sarah Lawrence affordable. It’s an exciting campaign with a working goal of $200 million that promises to secure a long and healthy future for the College. Our first objective is to support our exceptional students today and 10, 20, 30 years from now. And we want to ensure that the education our students receive translates into career and community. The Campaign will enable us to invest significantly in internships, career services, student activities and groups, leadership programs, and community partnerships. Another major goal is supporting our stellar faculty. A challenge we continue to face post-recession is being able to appropriately compensate our faculty for the unmatched quality of their teaching and their dedication. The Campaign will support faculty both in the classroom and in their research, and it will enhance our academic programs, the lifeblood of the College. Students are clamoring for courses in fields like international relations, international law, and neuroscience, among others, and we’d like to be in the position to offer them. Of course, we will deepen resources in our current areas of strength, like our flagship writing program, the arts, 
and literature. The Barbara Walters Campus Center we discussed earlier is the major new building in this campaign. Renovations of beloved buildings are also part of it; for example, Gilbert (click here to read more about the renovation of Gilbert).

Last, but certainly not least, we want to bolster annual fund participation by alumni, parents, friends, and others who believe in Sarah Lawrence and what our graduates bring to the world. Annual gifts to The Fund for Sarah Lawrence are an important piece of the Campaign because they are vital to sustaining the College every year with funds that support current use.

One of the greatest pleasures of being president is meeting alumni across the nation—indeed, across the world. There is nothing perfunctory about our interactions, because Sarah Lawrence graduates are never bored and never boring. It makes the president’s job so rewarding.