Harvard administrator Kathleen McCartney named 11th president of Smith College effective July 2013

Last modified: Monday, February 18, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Kathleen McCartney, a Harvard University administrator and expert on early childhood education who was named the 11th president of Smith College Monday, said she’s looking forward to the experience of living on campus — something she missed out on in her undergraduate years.

“I went to Tufts and I commuted because I didn’t have the money to live on campus,” said McCartney, in a phone interview Monday from her office at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she has been dean for seven years. “I’m looking forward to supporting the faculty, working with dedicated alumnae and being part of the campus community.”

McCartney, 57, grew up in Medford and was the first person in her family to attend college. She earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from Tufts University and a master’s and a Ph.D. in that subject from Yale, according to her resume. Her professional experience includes stints as a psychology professor at Harvard and the University of New Hampshire, where she directed the UNH Child Study and Development Center.

McCartney’s appointment, effective July 1, 2013, caps a yearlong international search by a 12-member committee at Smith. She will replace Carol Christ, who has been president of the women’s college since 2002.

Smith officials would not reveal McCartney’s salary. Christ earned total compensation of $470,766 last year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Members of the search committee said they were drawn to McCartney’s track record as an academic and administrator, as well as her collegial leadership style.

“What we saw in Kathy McCartney was a scholar, a leader, an advocate for women — and someone of remarkable warmth and presence,” said Elizabeth Mugar Eveillard, chairwoman of the college board of trustees and a member of the search committee. “She is a terrific fit for Smith.”

Andrew Guswa, a professor in Smith’s Picker engineering program, said McCartney is also “someone who is deeply committed to women’s education. That came through loud and clear.”

Guswa also cited McCartney’s membership on the founding board of edX, a national online education consortium, as an asset she brings to Smith. “She’s looking at expanding education and moving us forward in exciting ways,” he said.

During Christ’s tenure, Smith has undergone financial retrenchment to protect its endowment and maintain scholarship aid in the face of the national economic downturn.

Eveillard said McCartney’s management of the graduate school at Harvard shows she “understands the economic challenges of higher education.

“She has been successful in increasing giving to the Graduate School of Education at Harvard,” Eveillard said. “We were convinced that her passion for our mission would build our already strong alumnae support for Smith.”

During McCartney’s seven years as dean of the Harvard school of education, she helped the school raise $162 million, including two $10 million gifts for programs to support young leaders in education, according to a biography posted on Smith’s website.

She also launched a three year, tuition-free doctoral program in education in collaboration with the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government.

Former colleagues say the same qualities that make McCartney an approachable leader have also made her an effective fundraiser.

“She is someone who really understands the importance of higher education and can communicate that well to potential donors,” said Lawrence Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts, who recruited McCartney to that university’s board of trustees. “Her people skills are extraordinary.”

Keeping it affordable

In Monday’s interview, McCartney said one of her priorities at Smith will be finding ways to keep the college affordable to all students.

“The cost of college is the most pressing problem facing all colleges and universities,” she said. “One way to handle that is careful stewardship of existing resources. I think President Christ has been masterful at that.”

Other strategies include finding new avenues for fundraising, McCartney said, and new sources of revenue, such as expanding summer programs and international programs.

Making the case for why a college education matters is a key part of the job of president, McCartney said, noting that “higher education hasn’t always been good about demonstrating the value we add.

“I think testimonials from alumnae are important to that,” she said. “A number of alumnae I’ve met have spoken passionately about Smith and how it has lifted their sights.”

Higher education has also shaped McCartney’s life. Her father, who worked in a gauge and valve factory, and her mother, who stayed home to raise their five children, encouraged them to achieve academically.

“My parents were terrific,” McCartney said. “When report cards came out they’d take us all out for pizza and they’d say, ‘two Cokes for the scholars!’ In their own way, they demonstrated how much they valued education.”

As an undergraduate at Tufts, McCartney said she was fortunate to find mentors among the faculty — something she hopes to support at Smith.

“I’d like to have a reception at Smith for first-generation college students,” she said. “I go to a lot of admissions events and when I say ‘I’m the first in my family to go to college — you can do this,’ it’s very powerful.”

Encouraging a diverse student body has also been part of McCartney’s work as an administrator. Thirty-eight percent of tenure-track faculty hired during her time as a Harvard dean, for example, were men and women of color, according to the biography posted by Smith.

She has also been willing to reach outside the ivory tower. For example, she invited Lady Gaga to Harvard in 2012 as part of a national anti-bullying campaign.

When asked why she wants to lead Smith, McCartney cited The Futures Initiative, a series of working groups that Christ launched to explore issues facing the college in the coming decades.

“When I read the Futures Initiative report, I knew I wanted the job,” McCartney said.

She added that she was also attracted by Smith’s “rich history on women’s issues” and “its strength, academically and financially.”

McCartney said she plans to spend her first few months “listening carefully to all of the stakeholders” and then finding ways to “champion the issues that faculty and students care passionately about.”

Kenzi Green, a Smith senior and vice president of student government, said she’s looking forward to McCartney’s arrival.

“I found out about this on Facebook first thing this morning and I’m really excited,” said Green, who hails from Alabama.

“One thing we’ve been discussing this past year is how to incorporate social justice into the curriculum and make Smith a safe and welcoming space for women of all backgrounds,” Green said. “I think Kathleen McCartney will bring that same understanding of women’s education.”

The college will officially welcome McCartney at a campus event after classes resume in January. Details will be published on Smith’s website.


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