An Interview with President Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s 11th President

Photo by Tziona Breitbart '16 | Melissa Fares ‘14 met with President Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s 11th President, to hold an exclusive interview at the President’s Office.

Photo by Tziona Breitbart ’16 | Melissa Fares ‘14 met with President Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s 11th President, to hold an exclusive interview at the President’s Office.


Melissa Fares ’14
Associate Editor

Maybe you’ve seen her at crew practice, or at one of your house’s teas or lunches. Perhaps you saw her speaking at Convocation or walking around campus. One idea that is perfectly clear as Smith College warmly welcomes its 11th president, Kathleen McCartney, is this: she is finally here.

In an exclusive one-on-one interview with The Sophian, the President spoke of her immediate attraction to Smith College and its mission. “The more I explored the Smith opportunity, the more excited I got about it,” said McCartney. “I see a lot of challenges that remain for women today. I have experienced many challenges in my life, even though my story has a happy ending. I want to be a part of a place that is creating more opportunities for more women.”

President McCartney, who was the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education as well as a professor of education at Harvard, spoke about what she would bring from her previous positions in higher education. “I am bringing eight years of experience as an administrator in higher education. I learned a lot in those eight years. I learned what works well, and what works less well. I’ve made some mistakes, too.”

While mistakes may be part of the game in educational administration, McCartney speaks with passion about generating success. “One of my favorite quotes about success is from Sigmund Freud. He said, ‘Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness,’ and I really think that’s got a lot to it. You have work that you are passionate about, and then you have your family and friends that you love. You learn to balance—and you can balance them even when you have a crazy job like mine. You do everything with integrity. I think that’s really the bedrock, that you do your work by being a good person; the ends do not justify the means—ever.”

McCartney makes it clear that she values the opportunity to work with the College’s staff. “I think you try to be collaborative, especially when you’re in a role like mine. You use your team, your faculty team, and your staff team. And you be transparent, you own your decisions, and you explain them.”  In the fast-paced and sometimes political world of college administration, clarity seems to be the best policy.

As she has demonstrated with her high visibility on campus thus far, McCartney is looking to build her connection to the college’s students, and she spoke with interest and enthusiasm about Smithies. McCartney wisely advised students: “Don’t do anything because you’re padding your résumé, and only do something if you feel passionate about it.” She acknowledged the fact that many Smithies identify as perfectionists, as does she.

McCartney illuminated the importance of role models for Smithies by reflecting on Faye Crosby, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz and one of her many mentors.

“She taught me a lot about work-life balance. She said to me, ‘Get a house cleaner. You don’t have to cook every meal. You can get takeout. You can go to the store and buy chicken tenders and heat them up.’ Just set realistic expectations for yourself. Get to the edge of what feels right and realize that sometimes you have to let certain things go.”

On this note, McCartney spoke of a time she took a ceramics class at Harvard because she had always wanted to learn. “By the end I made the obligatory mug that my husband’s now using, and I really loved it. But I just don’t have time for that now.” It seems as though McCartney can certainly relate to those on campus who find themselves struggling to find that precious balance.

However, McCartney was quick to point out that there are certain things she would not let go. “I work out almost every morning. I have an elliptical machine, I do yoga, and now I’m running. At some point I’ll invite people who want to do 12-minute miles to meet me at the track at 7 am. I’ll tweet about it!” President McCartney will also be running the 5K color race on campus during family weekend in October with students.

The scholar-athlete’s desire to get to know students goes much further, too. Earlier that morning, she had made it to a 5:30 am crew practice. “I tried to get invited to a 4 in the afternoon practice, though,” she joked.

“I have to say I’m really interested in sports,” she said. “I did not have that as an opportunity—it just didn’t exist in the same way for young women and girls. My daughters, who are 28 and 31, both had those opportunities. Kimberly went on to do varsity crew at Wesleyan and ended up being the team captain in her sophomore year. I watched her learn so much about how to lead and how not to lead.”

President McCartney mentioned a variety of interests and goals, one of the most important being the Women in the World campaign, a Smith advancement initiative aimed at raising $450 million, $200 million of which would endow financial aid. You can read more about the campaign here:

“I will also be interested in supporting the faculty as they develop new ways of delivering education that meets students’ needs.” Certainly, technology is changing the nature of learning experience. “What will the online learning mean for Smith? We will have to develop our own strategy. Our strategy will be different.”

It’s clear that other themes fill the new President’s agenda, which also emphasizes the College’s responsibility in a more tightly connected world. “I’m also really interested in making us more global and working in the area of international relations. We have so many faculty who are interested in international relations so they will definitely use the Lewis Global Studies Center, but potentially through some other mechanisms that they develop, too.” President McCartney is also a trustee at Tufts University, where international relations is the number one major.

As much as President McCartney is invested in her work, she also devotes a lot of time to her family. She has four children, two stepsons and two daughters, all of whom will be attending her inauguration on October 19. Three siblings, cousins, mentors, and friends will be there as well. “People keep asking me if I’m nervous. I’m not. It’s going to be wonderful. When there’s an inauguration, it gives a campus an opportunity to celebrate its past successes and look forward to the future.”

The last two questions I asked were playful in spirit, but necessary to ask. The first was about her take on Smith’s distinctly unique Convocation. “It’s Mardi Gras. I’ll tell you why. What is Mardi Gras? It’s this crazy fun day where anything goes before Lent. Lent is when people go inward, prepare, buckle down, and sacrifice. Convocation is the night before classes. It’s Mardi Gras! There was such tremendous school spirit and it really made me happy to have such a warm welcome from all of you. Now, do I wish some of you wore more clothes? I do,” she smiled.

Over the course of the conversation, talk turned comfortably to the subject of food. Asked about her favorite side dish, McCartney was all smiles. “I would have to say piping hot French fries for sure.”

It’s clear the President is willing to take advice. About an hour after hearing about the piping hot sweet potato fries at the Campus Center, McCartney was spotted on the scene forming her own opinion. That seems an appropriate metaphor for a woman who is clearly invested in understanding what makes Smith tick.

While the challenges of her job may make the school seem a demanding master, Smith has made McCartney feel at home. “You wouldn’t imagine the amazingly warm welcome I have received from everyone. I have to say, I had office hours here, and I wondered if I’d be lonely. It was nonstop students asking advice about graduate school, asking me if I’d come to some of the film nights. One person came in and just said, ‘I just wanted to meet you.’”

The many ideas that cropped up over the course of this interview seem to offer a clear reflection of President McCartney’s remarkable, personable, and pioneering character. On behalf of the Smith College community, we welcome President McCartney home.

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