From the President's Desk: News for the Community from President Judd

As we returned from Spring Break this week, there were signs all around campus that we are entering the final stretch of the academic year—from spring bulbs newly blooming to the intensity of purpose one senses when talking with students, especially seniors. In a few short weeks, the year will culminate with celebrations of graduation and reunion, before which much conference work will be completed, many all-nighters will be pulled, and more performances, readings, and presentations will be given than seem humanly possible for our small campus. Along the way, the wisteria will bloom and Westlands lawns will be filled with members of our community enjoying the beautiful surroundings.

As we shift our focus to this last quarter of the year, I wanted to take some time to share reflections on recent events on campus, and to do so at some length. As many of you know—or have heard from members of the SLC community, or have seen on social media or news reports—in the days before Spring Break a group of students, led by a group called the Diaspora Coalition, staged a sit-in in Westlands (you can see my earlier communications to the campus during and after the sit-in). I’d like to offer some observations on three themes among the issues highlighted by these students, which have been adumbrated in various forms over several generations by students, faculty, staff, and alumni invested in the ongoing improvement of Sarah Lawrence College:

  1. Ensuring that SLC is an inclusive environment—a welcoming home—for all students at the College, from every background and identity, as they pursue an education in which they are challenged to seek to stretch the limits of knowledge and creativity in an educational model that promotes both individual discovery and collaboration;
  2. Providing the conditions in a residential setting that will allow undergraduates to thrive in the intensive, challenging, and sometimes stressful milieu of the college experience and to be prepared for a successful transition beyond Sarah Lawrence to professional life and graduate study;
  3. Having a voice at SLC and in the world beyond. 

These three, cross-generational emphases embody goals and priorities that are shared by the College’s trustees and senior leadership as pillars of our Sarah Lawrence values. While there will be disagreement about the distance SLC has traveled in this regard, and even about the best way to achieve these goals, it is important to recognize that we share the same commitment and see the opportunity always for constructive dialogue to advance the College. In this letter, I would like to highlight some of the ways the College has recently and is currently approaching all three.

Ensuring that SLC is an Inclusive Environment

Since shortly after its founding, the College has moved to increase the diversity of backgrounds and identities of the students for whom a Sarah Lawrence education is available. To this end, the College has invested significant effort and resources in admissions, financial aid, and student programming during a period of unprecedented competition to attract and enroll high-achieving students. Over the last decade, those efforts helped the College increase the number of undergraduates who are U.S. citizens who self-identify as students of color from 237 in 2007 to 352 in 2018 (from 18% to 26% of total enrollment). In the same period, the number of international undergraduate students on campus increased from 42 (3%) to 170 (12%) in Fall 2018. Taken together, U.S. and international students who identified as students of color doubled in this period from 237 to 471 (from 18% to 34% of students enrolled).

Thanks in large measure to the College’s comprehensive fundraising campaign and to the generosity of individual donors and foundations, we have been able to maintain a commitment to student socioeconomic diversity, supporting a growing number and proportion of students with financial need. Over the 2007-2018 timeframe, the percentage of first-year students receiving need-based aid increased from 46% in 2007 to 62% in 2018. Today, on average, 17% of SLC students are Pell grant recipients, among the highest percentage at a private selective college, a considerable achievement for our highly tuition-dependent college with only a modest endowment to support financial aid.

And Sarah Lawrence is regularly recognized in college guidebooks like The Princeton Reviewas an LGBTQ-friendly campus.

SLC is moving expeditiously, but also with appropriate care and deliberation, to fill recent or soon-to-be vacancies among staff in the areas of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and we have retained Kim Bobby of AGB Search to assist us in this search. As we move forward, we are also creating a matrix of staff across practically every department who can more effectively respond to and assist with the needs of students from diverse backgrounds.

We also recognize the ongoing imperative to bring greater diversity to the faculty and staff of the college. As I reported to you in my February letter, two campus committees are leading the work to bring recommendations forward for new policies and procedures. While roughly 25% of undergraduates and 50% of master’s students are newly enrolled each year, new faculty arrive at the College in much smaller numbers and as a smaller percentage of the faculty as a whole, intensifying the challenge of rapid and sustained progress on this goal.

This all points to a fundamental issue, highlighted in many of the concerns expressed by our students: Our success in, and continued commitment to, bringing a more diverse student body to the campus amplifies a fundamental challenge associated with that accomplishment—while Sarah Lawrence has never been as diverse as it is today, that very diversity means that we must constantly strive to improve the lived experience of all of our students. Filling current staff vacancies and increasing the diversity of our faculty and staff are two key planks in doing so.

Helping Students Thrive Throughout the College Experience and Beyond

Within our diverse community, many students confront challenges beyond those associated with achieving intellectual and creative excellence. Our student body consists of individuals who come to our campus from almost all 50 states and from nearly 40 nations; from a broad and varying set of socioeconomic circumstances; from a wide-ranging array of racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities; and from differing educational paths and preparation that include being the first in their family to attend college. It is one thing to bring these students to the College—and we are justly proud of the strides we have made in doing so—it is yet a further and far greater challenge to bring them together into a vibrant learning community from which all benefit.

Across the span of their college careers, many students grapple with the stresses and uncertainty that come with socialization, preparation for life beyond the boundaries of SLC, and simply figuring out the economics and cost of a liberal arts education. Small residential colleges like Sarah Lawrence rightly argue that the intimate, residential, 24/7 nature of the College is a key feature of our undergraduate education. But, it is important to recognize that this model was originally based on an assumption that students coming to the College came from domestic situations that provided year-round support. These expectations create a structural and systemic impediment for low-income students and students coming from greater distances to thrive at Sarah Lawrence, especially, but not only, with regard to meal plans during the academic year and access to housing over breaks. It is an impediment to which Sarah Lawrence has responded in individual cases, but for which our students rightly seek a holistic solution. This year we have been examining our meal plans (and surveying students on their needs) as well as the academic calendar, and we expect to announce in the coming weeks changes that will go into place next year as continuing steps aimed at addressing these issues. Above all, we will continue to work tirelessly to increase our resources for financial aid and ultimately to be able to fully meet demonstrated student financial need.
 
The College has introduced a number of practices to assist students with developing affinity groups early in their time at the College, including pre-orientation programs for first generation college-goers, international students, and students with shared interests in community engagement. These complement a mentor-mentee program linking new and returning students. And I expect to hear in the coming weeks from the Student Life Committee of the College on my charge to them to develop recommendations to increase student engagement. To expand the Health and Wellness support that our students receive as they adjust at SLC, we soon will be announcing new, 24/7/365 access to online counseling services for all students, complementing SLC’s campus-based counseling services.

SLC students looking ahead to professional work and study will find in the coming years an expanding number of faculty-led curricular innovations to potentially deepen their range of studies. At the same time, Career Services will be implementing a new framework for linking students with specific career interests to faculty and alumni connections in those fields, and we are grateful to our alumni and families as they help us deepen these links and create a deeper SLC network in the world.

Having a Voice at Sarah Lawrence (and Beyond)

The diffuse range of concerns expressed by students chronicle not only the challenges faced by individual students and groups, but indicate that we are not taking full advantage of opportunities that exist for constructive and effective student engagement in decision-making at the College, or that these opportunities are not as widely known as they should be. Such opportunities have increased over time and have continued to do so in the current year. Examples include the creation of the Diversity Committee earlier in this decade. This year, the Board of Trustees created a standing Committee on Student Life with substantial student representation. In addition, the Board committees on education policy and physical facilities added representative roles for students, faculty, and staff as a means of bridging the work of the Board and campus committees. These recent developments add to the long-standing roles that students have had as elected representatives to the Board, on Student Senate and Graduate Student Senate, and on the College’s committees including General, Curriculum, Admissions, Student Work, and the Undergraduate Committee on Student Life.

For the remainder of the semester, we have the opportunity to engage these forums in deep discussion not only of problems, but of forming solutions. The students, faculty, staff, and trustees elected to serve on these committees are receptive to new ideas and innovation and these committees exist in great measure to promote the educational and social wellbeing of students. The challenge, which we must meet, is to use these as a means to debate, disagree, find consensus, and move forward, to do so within our financial means, and to model the type of leadership that the wider world needs so greatly at present. And if these structures are not serving us well, we need to understand and create ones that will.

That, in turn, leads me to the final topic I want to take up in these reflections under the heading of “having a voice.”  One of the most challenging campus debates this year, perhaps of greatest relevance to our educational mission, relates to academic freedom, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of speech. In its classic formulation, academic freedom is described as “the indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in institutions of higher education … the free search for truth and its free exposition.” A fuller description is here. Tenure, in turn, was created and exists to protect academic freedom. There have been, and there will continue to be, times in the history of the College when faculty express scholarly opinions that some find not only disagreeable, but even indefensible. Tenure not only allows, but protects, that expression. It allows for the fostering of doubt, for reckoning with differences in belief and understanding, and for questioning conventional thinking. Sarah Lawrence has always defended and will continue to defend tenure and academic freedom—as it did quite visibly in the context of the McCarthy Era and at other times.

The freedom of expression that students enjoy in our residential campus setting is also among the first principles that define who we are as a college. As SLC—along with most of higher education—has evolved over generations, the tension between students’ conceptualization of free speech and acceptable speech, and interpretations of First Amendment protections of speech, have been placed in ever-greater contrast. This tension at times can appear irreconcilable. As we work to resolve our differences and achieve our shared goals—preparing students for life in a dynamic and ever-changing world—we need to recognize the differing perspectives that inform how we approach open discourse. That basic recognition is essential to successful problem-solving. It is essential to the success of our students as they commence beyond the virtual walls of the College and seek to engage their peers in a life of learning and leadership.

Finally, I want to affirm an immutable principle related to speech, freedom of inquiry, and having a voice at Sarah Lawrence. Strong differences of opinion and belief do not grant license to any individual or any group on campus to engage in the public silencing of individuals—be they faculty, staff, visiting guests, or other students. Freedom of inquiry and expression, grappling with disagreement, doubt, and varied perspectives, is messy, contentious, and hard work, but an essential ingredient to the creation of equitable and inclusive communities. The academic enterprise is undermined by demands and actions that seek to silence members who present considered arguments on the basis that they might be not only intellectually disagreeable, but profoundly offensive. Without such protections, debate would be stifled and along with it the processes of reasoning and creativity that underpin the process of knowledge formation and learning. 

In Conclusion

Thank you to those who have persevered through this long missive, which could easily have been three installments of this newsletter! I felt it incumbent to take the time to share these more elaborated, and I hope nuanced, thoughts with you. I have received repeated inquiries and requests from a wide array of constituents and media outlets to make public statements related to events of this year: to the College’s commitment to academic freedom, to the role of free speech on campuses, to student protests (on our campus and others). I have abstained from such statements and media interviews in the firm belief that while issues on a college campus now inevitably play out in the glare of social media and an amplifying effect that can quickly move to fact-free diatribe, our responsibility as a residential college is to engage thoughtfully, reflectively, and deeply in our community and in our daily interactions.

Thank you for being part of a community that cares deeply, argues passionately, and shares an abiding commitment to improving our College and our world (even when we don’t always agree on how best to do it!). Thank you above all for your continued support of the extraordinary education at Sarah Lawrence.

Yours,

Cristle Collins Judd
President

president@sarahlawrence.edu 
@slcprez