Interview With President McCartney

Photo Courtesy of | President Kathleen McCartney discusses Smith’s role in the current political climate.

Photo Courtesy of | President Kathleen McCartney discusses Smith’s role in the current political climate.

Hira Humayun ’17

What prompted you to write the open letter to Steve Bannon following his comments and whose idea was it initially? Was there any point of contention when you were talking to the other presidents?

I heard from several alumnae who said, “You should really write a response,” and I thought about it. First, I wrote to Paula Johnson at Wellesley and said, “What do you think?” She said, “Let’s do it.” So then I wrote to the Dean of Radcliffe and the other presidents and said, “What do you think about writing an open letter to him?” I offered to draft it, so I drafted it. We went back and forth; we edited it together. At first we used his words, for example, and then one of the presidents said, “Why amplify his voice?” and I thought that was an important moment. We decided to just give them a link to what he’d actually said, just in case there were some people who were unaware. Instead, we made a point of saying we choose not to repeat him.

I feel really proud of the letter and I think the other six of us do too. But I don’t think we could have anticipated the response which was overwhelming, because it was written so as not to be partisan, but just to really call out, I guess I’ll call it hate speech, by Bannon but also to encourage him to speak more as a representative of everybody and to speak more carefully, really. I was at a Boston Business Journal Breakfast yesterday; everyone had seen it. All of these women in Boston had seen it and said, good for you! Regardless of how you feel about the election, I don’t think anyone is excited about the kind of rhetoric that he has been known for. It was nice to be Seven Sisters in unison.

When you were drafting this letter, what did you initially hope this would achieve?

I wanted to send a signal really to him, and to others like him that this is hurtful and unacceptable. Ultimately I decided that if we didn’t speak to it, it would be to normalize this kind of hate speech. That’s really it — to not allow it to be normalized, to call it out. I’m a person who frankly prefers calling in, but it’s not like I’m going to be able to get a meeting with Steve Bannon, so there are times that I think it’s appropriate to call out and this is just my own ethical stance. I prefer to do it respectfully, and actually the only critical comments I got were from people saying, “you were too nice.” I don’t mind that kind of criticism. I think it made its point. You know, when you call out in a demeaning way, people don’t listen. I wanted him to listen to us, and I’m sure he has seen it.

What was the whole thought process behind declaring Smith’s commitment to the Sanctuary Campus movement?

I believe in DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals); I haven’t met a college president who doesn’t. So even before the petition, I think a number of college presidents, including me, were planning to write something about the fact that we would protect undocumented students. You should know that one of the first things I did when I came here was to explore whether or not we had undocumented students and we made a change in policy that I asked admissions to consider. Namely that our financial aid support for them does not treat them as international students, it treats them as domestic students; I thought that was really important. Things are moving really quickly in this area right now. In fact, just today the American Council on Education issued a policy brief. I sent it to faculty council and I sent it to the head of OUSR. This is evolving. We don’t know what’s going to happen with DACA yet, we don’t know what kind of pressure students and college presidents will be placing on the Trump administration. I think some of that depends on what they decide to do. So I’m paying very very careful attention trying to stay in communication with the students. Just last night, I got a list of expectations from OUSR and they asked me to share that with the Board of Trustees, and I’ve already done that. So that’s what I mean about evolving, I think that we have to do everything we can to protect undocumented students, so that’s what I plan to do.

What do you think is the role of higher education institutes, particularly women’s colleges, in the political sphere in light of today’s political climate with regard to countering the hateful rhetoric that has been spewed following the election?

I wrote a piece about women in leadership [in the New York Times] and about some of the sexist comments that Trump made during the campaign. I used what had happened as a jumping-off point to talk about women in leadership.

I think women’s colleges should be weighing in on women’s issues, including women’s leadership, and I think we should be weighing in on sexism, especially from a perspective of intersectionality. I made that point in the op-ed and gave that voice to the students that came to my house that Sunday night after the election. I think we should be weighing in on those issues, or anything having to do with Seven Sisters or women’s colleges. I think the challenge is to do this in a non-partisan way because all campuses have people who represent all political parties. As a college president I also think I need to weigh in on higher education policies generally and that’s where DACA lies. It’s an executive order actually, issued by President Obama.That’s one of the reasons why I very much wanted to weigh in on DACA. But let’s say there was a threat to Pell Grants for financial aid —  that’s something that I would feel free to weigh in on. I’m also, by training, an early childhood educator and in the past I have weighed in on early education policies, so if there were a threat to funding for Headstart, I would certainly weigh in as I have done in the past.

There have been walkouts on college campuses recently; what is your opinion on this and what do you think is the importance of having such walkouts on college campuses?

I encourage student activism; I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s in the fabric of Smith, it’s been a part of who we are from the beginning; when you think about it, it was pretty radical to start a women’s college when Smith was founded. So I think it’s great. I don’t know about encouraging students to miss classes, I would be remiss if I didn’t say I think it would be better to happen not during classes but in this case this was a national walkout, and I certainly appreciate why Smith students wanted to participate. I hope our activism will extend to Washington. I think we ought to be letting our members of Congress know how we want them to act on our behalf. I think we need to let president-elect Trump know how we want him to act on our behalf with respect to DACA and other higher education issues, so we need to be communicating directly with Washington as well.

Are you hopeful about this going forward?

I am. One of the things I said in my New York Times editorial is that the silver lining here is that this is a call to action. People care very much about what’s happening in Washington and we all ought to be using our voices, that’s what democracy is all about. Only half of Americans voted. So we need to do everything we can to encourage voting, it may be the most important form of activism we can take as citizens. Calling members of Congress, which I have done throughout my career, writing opinion editorials — things like this really make a difference; there are many kinds of activism but I think communicating directly with Congress and president-elect Trump is going to be increasingly important.

What message would you like to deliver to the Smith community in terms of what to keep in mind moving forward or what we as individuals and as students could do to play our part?

I would encourage students to come to my office hours or to make appointments with me if they want to know the extent to which I’m working on something. So I would’ve been working on a letter about DACA with or without a petition. I’d just encourage students to come and meet with me and let me know what you think directly too. I don’t need a petition sometimes; sometimes I just need a group of students in my office saying, “what are your thoughts about this,” and they’ll find that we are aligned, so I’m hoping for more direct communication with students going forward, too.

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