From the President

It is difficult for me to believe that almost a decade has passed since I arrived at Sarah Lawrence College. I still vividly remember interviewing for the position, an intense and exciting matchmaking process, and trying not to dwell on the euphonious ring of the phrase, “I’m Karen Lawrence, president of Sarah Lawrence.” I also recall a moment late in the process when someone turned to me and said, “There’s just one further question: Do you sing or dance?”

Singing and dancing, I quickly learned, are an integral part of the Faculty Show and the alumni’s Reunion Cabaret, two performances in which SLC presidents have sometimes participated. The question confirmed the sense I had then, and during the succeeding 10 years, that Sarah Lawrence is sui generis. The question also foreshadowed features of the College I have come to love: the genuine centrality of the arts; the relaxed, informal, even uninhibited atmosphere; and the way SLC faculty and staff (and even presidents) are called upon to roll up their sleeves, work together, and “put on a show.”

President Lawrence joins the celebration at the Faculty Show.

A decade ago, the description of the president’s position emphasized three attributes. The community wanted 1) someone who understood and would preserve the unique pedagogy, 2) someone who could enhance the financial stability of the College, and 3) someone who could expand access to this unique institution for a wider range of students. I believe that together we have accomplished these three goals, but I want to stress that these projects continue to require our vigilant attention. The distinctive pedagogy of Sarah Lawrence that alumni remember is alive and well: I am reminded of an alumna from the Class of ’69 who told me that she can still rattle off the conference papers she wrote 50 years ago, and I’ll bet our current students will be able to do the same.

We have maintained our core pedagogic values these past 10 years, but as an institution, we have not stood still. Today, our distinctive education appeals to a much more diverse student body, with varied backgrounds and interests. Although the arts, literature, and writing continue to draw students to us, our expanded curriculum and excellent faculty in science, arts and technology, psychology, and international relations attract them to Sarah Lawrence as well. Our annual financial aid budget has doubled since 2007, enabling us to offer our education to students who otherwise could not attend. For a tuition-dependent college, this is not always easy, but The Campaign for Sarah Lawrence has helped us augment our scholarship funds considerably. Joan K. Silber ’67 (writing) commented in her Senior Lecture last year that, although the soul of Sarah Lawrence feels the same as it did in the late ’60s, the student body looks different. In 2016–17, 24 percent of the incoming class self-identified as US students of color, with an additional 13 percent international. And although our decision to participate in NCAA Division III athletics was not universally supported, it has allowed us to recruit qualified student-athletes who would not otherwise have chosen Sarah Lawrence. These students belong and thrive at the College, with a retention rate that surpasses our general student population (91 percent).

“We have maintained our core pedagogic values these past 10 years, but as an institution, we have not stood still.”

When my predecessor, Michele Myers, passed me the baton, she quoted our last Middle States Accreditation Report (2007), which praised the College as a “distinctive and noble institution.” She went on to say, “That quote captured the essence of a college that kept faith with its philosophy of education and pedagogy, despite chronic financial difficulties.” As I pass the torch to our dynamic new president, Cristle Collins Judd, even though financial challenges still exist, much has been done to improve our situation, including a 44 percent application increase over the past three years and a very successful fundraising campaign. I feel confident our senior leadership team is up to the task of meeting these continuing challenges and building on our momentum.

This is my final column in Sarah Lawrence magazine, and I’ll take the liberty of quoting an interview I did last spring for a previous issue: “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.” As I become president emerita in August, I trust that these exhilarating interactions will continue. I look forward to them all.

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