The Call to Community

What defines a community? The Sarah Lawrence family, after all, extends far beyond campus to include students in programs abroad and alumni around the globe. But the Principles of Mutual Respect, which define the ideals of our community, project a unified voice for a diverse College of individuals.

“Iconoclasts, unite!” That impassioned directive—the coda of Karen Lawrence’s 2007 inaugural address—embodies a priority that’s indisputably close to her heart: the enhancement of what she calls a “community of individuals,” brought together in a celebration of intellectual, cultural, and philosophical differences. In an age marked by polarization and confrontation, her belief in such a community may seem audacious, but the striking changes made during her tenure—and the enthusiasm with which Sarah Lawrence students, faculty, staff, and administrators rallied to her appeal—affirm the validity of her vision.

The Call to CommunityThey start with her decision to live on campus and to invite every member of the first-year class to a series of dinners in her home. She’s also hosted intimate dinners mixing students, faculty, and visiting scholars. Angela Moger (French, comparative literature, emerita) attended several of those events, where students, she says, “got to do something very rare. They got to see intellectuals talking to each other and to participate in the conversations.”

Thanks to Lawrence, future students will one day be able to exchange ideas at the Barbara Walters Campus Center, envisioned as a community meeting place. Trustee Sarah Gray Gund ’65 says the outgoing president “has been the singular spokesperson for the center and worked very hard to raise money for it.”

During Lawrence’s tenure, the College ratified and inaugurated the Principles of Mutual Respect, which were read aloud for the first time at the 2014 convocation. The first principle serves as a stepping stone for the eight that follow: “As a community, we respect those with whom we live, learn, and work at Sarah Lawrence College: students, staff, and faculty.” A collaborative effort of those students, staff, and faculty, the principles serve as a framework for viewing the extraordinary development of the Sarah Lawrence community.

“We aspire to work with integrity and honor.”

Those paired values resonate throughout the campus, and nowhere more than in athletics, where students model integrity every time they compete—or volunteer in the community, also an essential part of the athletics program. In 2011, Sarah Lawrence sought to expand its campus community and its appeal to student-athletes by joining the NCAA. “The College recognized that there were qualified prospective students out there who had a passion for athletics,” says Kristin Maile, director of athletics and physical education. Today, thanks to increased recruitment, she says, “We have student-athletes who fit here wonderfully.”

“We foster honest inquiry, free speech, and open discourse. We seek wisdom with understanding.”

The Call to CommunityIn her inaugural address, Lawrence spoke of the need for liberal arts colleges to “foster the individual voice” in an atmosphere that doesn’t just tolerate diverse opinions but embraces them. Colleges, notes Fredric Smoler ’75 (literature, history), “exist so people can argue—and they can only argue productively if they understand the necessity of mutual respect.” By hiring new faculty with strikingly divergent intellectual and pedagogical backgrounds, Smoler says, Lawrence has underscored her own respect for free and open discourse. During Lawrence’s tenure, the College has made a deliberate effort to hire faculty who don’t constitute a particular scholarly or instructional “type”—a move, Smoler stresses, that’s likely to encourage a community of individuals for decades to come.

“We embrace our diversity in all its dimensions.”

As director of diversity and campus engagement, Natalie Gross has overseen the development of two extraordinary programs over the past decade. One is Real Talk @ SLC, a weekly student-led dialogue about challenging issues such as race, class, immigration, and gender identity. The program’s expectation, Gross says, “isn’t that everybody comes out with the same understanding, but that they emerge with an understanding of everybody else’s understanding.”

The other program is Radical Empathy, launched this year, which uses storytelling to promote an acceptance of different backgrounds and points of view. The process is deceptively simple: Two participants share their stories with each other, then each is charged with retelling the other’s story to a student group. “Ideally,” Gross says, “people leave holding on to the experience, story, and perspective of another person.”

“We respect one another’s privacy and honor personal boundaries.”

The growth of social media, which has helped to blur the line between public and private life, often threatens the very concept of personal boundaries. In response, Sarah Lawrence has created a scaffolding to help students understand and respect not just the privacy of their peers, but their own privacy as well. It begins with a new orientation program, explains Dean of Student Affairs Paige Crandall, “that helps students understand what the boundaries are” in behaviors like smoking (the campus is tobacco free) and drug and alcohol use. And roommate agreements, introduced during Lawrence’s presidency, “help students understand one another’s limits.”

“We are responsible and respectful in all of our communications.”

The Call to CommunityThe presence of international students encourages respectful communication with classmates who might hold radically different worldviews. Over the past five years, Kevin McKenna, dean of enrollment, and Shirley Be, assistant dean of studies and director of international admission and international student advising, have helped increase the College’s international applicant pool by 212 percent. International students now constitute 16 to 18 percent of incoming classes—more than twice the national average. And special events for international students—from a trip to the Cloisters to an on-campus celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights—are open to everyone.

“Immersion in another culture challenges biases and misconceptions,” says Prema Samuel, associate dean of international and exchange programs. The study abroad programs at Sarah Lawrence enable students to cultivate respect for diversity, reflecting the College’s commitment to engage with cultures around the world. Over the past decade, Sarah Lawrence has created new opportunities for study abroad in China, England, Cuba, Peru, Germany, Greece, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

“We work to keep our campus and its natural environment a beautiful and welcoming place, and to leave it in a better state than we found it.”

In 2014, Melanie Ersapah ’17 and Sophia Manzi ’17 founded the Environmental Awareness Organization, which Ersapah now co-chairs with Julia Fisher ’18. Dedicated to making the campus more sustainable, the group has mounted art and fashion shows featuring recyclables taken from campus bins and hosts events to help students understand environmental issues.

That kind of engagement leads to what Joshua Luce, director of student involvement and leadership, calls “ownership”—a sense of responsibility to the community’s campus home. Luce’s staff and programs have encouraged ownership among students by revamping the Sarah Lawrence Activities Council. Previously, students on the council were work-study employees. Today, Luce says, they’re highly motivated volunteers “who have done some pretty phenomenal programming,” from large-scale events like Winter Carnival and Casino Night to a series of highly popular open-mic nights and dance parties.

“We endeavor to inflict no harm on one another, in word or deed.”

There is no better testament to the vow to “inflict no harm” than establishing the position of dean of equity and inclusion. Allen Green, who had served as dean of studies and student life for 16 years, fills this vital role. Among other duties, Green is charged with encouraging a culture that rejects sexual violence, and he has organized training on issues of consent, respect, and the effects of alcohol. For Green, creating a culture of inclusivity is an essential element of “making every individual on campus feel affirmed and a part of the entire institution.”

“As a community, we strive to support one another in upholding these principles.”

The Call to CommunitySarah Lawrence’s highly engaged alumni and parents help promote the College and its principles. The Parents Advisory Council supports initiatives such as the cyber meeting place known as the Student Engagement Portal and two annual student formals. The council fosters community among students and families, says chair Wendy Finn ’76, “by giving them a voice.”

Simeon Bankoff ’91, executive director of the nonprofit Historic Districts Council in New York City, is grateful for opportunities to help the College and its core principles thrive. He served on last year’s Reunion Committee, has spoken on Admitted Students Day, and has taken part in Sarah Lawrence’s periodic strategy sessions. “The College helped shape me into the person I am today,” he says, “so for that alone I feel strongly that I should try to give to the extent that I’m capable.”

Bankoff’s commitment to his alma mater reinforces the notion that the Sarah Lawrence community of individuals transcends both physical space and the passage of time.