Thank You, Susan

Susan Guma, Dean of Graduate Studies 1984-2014, retires

Susan Guma portrait

But for Thomas Lux, who spent 17 years as director of the graduate program in poetry, the story that may best epitomize who Guma is and what she brought to the College isn’t about dollars or programs or advocacy.

It is the story of a beer run.

As Lux tells it, the Sarah Lawrence Summer Seminar for Writers, a program for adult students, was in full swing. After a day of classes, students were ready to wind down with a drink. When it became clear that the demand for drinks was going to outstrip supply, Guma didn’t hesitate a moment before hopping into her car and heading to the local liquor store to pick up more beer. “Susan, you’re the dean of graduate studies,” Lux remembers telling her. “You don’t have to do that!”

But of course she did. For Guma, work has never been defined by a simple job description. Instead, she would do whatever it took to make sure that Sarah Lawrence was the best school it could be, and to make sure its students had the best possible experience.

Sometimes, that meant a beer run.

Guma arrived at Sarah Lawrence in 1984 as associate director of the Center for Continuing Education, and ultimately became dean of graduate studies.

Her career has been defined by her ability to bring together programs and people. She built partnerships with New York public schools to create a diverse and powerful high school writing program. She developed an exchange program between the graduate program in genetic counseling and the Jordanian University of Science and Technology. Under her guidance, enrollment in the graduate programs has grown more than 60 percent.

She has been the principal architect of initiatives that have transformed Sarah Lawrence in profoundly beneficial ways, by connecting graduate and summer programs to the larger mission of the College. And she has been the fiercest advocate for faculty who want to add innovative courses or start projects that will benefit their students.

Her mind-boggling ability to remember the names, personalities, and even phone extensions of nearly every person on campus is less a parlor trick than a testament to her desire to connect with others.

She has tempered her ambitions for the graduate programs with humanity, modesty, and kindness. Even as her responsibilities multiplied, she never stopped making time for students, serving as a source of good humor, sound judgment, and wise counsel. She was a fixture at the College’s frequent readings, performances, and other events. And her mind-boggling ability to remember the names, personalities, and even phone extensions of nearly every person on campus is less a parlor trick than a testament to her desire to connect with others.

For those who have benefited from her work, her retirement is a profound loss; she seems so integral to the College, so deeply attuned to what makes the school tick and what will make it even better, that it is as though Sarah Lawrence is etched into her DNA. And thanks to her tireless efforts, Guma’s DNA is now etched into Sarah Lawrence. “Susan is an extraordinarily competent person with a great, generous spirit,” says Lux. “If you had an idea, she was the one who could make it happen.”

For those who know her best, Susan Guma is part magician, pulling funding out of thin air to bring important new programs and classes to life. She is part MacGyver, finding ingenious ways to solve complex problems. And she is part mind reader, understanding and articulating the needs of faculty, staff, and students, often before they express those needs themselves.

by Erin Petersen