Smith College president Kathleen McCartney stepping down in 2023

  • Smith College President Kathleen McCartney calls on Aminata Khan to give the senior class address during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Smith College President Kathleen McCartney SHANA SURECK PHOTOGRAPHY

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2022 1:06:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College President Kathleen McCartney plans to step down as the school’s leader in summer 2023, a decade after arriving on campus.

In an announcement Friday, the college said that McCartney — Smith’s 11th president — will leave her role as president in June 2023. The college named McCartney as president in 2013. She replaced Carol Christ, who has been president of the women’s college since 2002.

“When I accepted this role, I noted that a good education encourages individuals to seek change, to risk change; a strong institution encourages its community to do the same,” McCartney wrote in a message to campus Friday. “Together, as members of this remarkable college — with its venerable traditions and its distinguished history — we continue to embrace change and the opportunities it presents.”

Smith College will now embark on a search for its next president while McCartney finishes her remaining 16 months on campus. The college said that McCartney aims to use that time to focus on school priorities like becoming need-blind in its admission process and “enhancing Smith’s career development programs.”

McCartney, 66, was a Harvard University administrator when she was named as Smith’s president. A native of Medford, she received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Tufts University and a master’s and a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale. McCartney’s announcement comes after longtime Amherst College President Biddy Martin announced in September 2021 that she would be stepping down from her role at the end of this academic year.

In its 2019 tax filings, Smith College reported that McCartney received $608,517 in compensation from the college and $171,492 in “other compensation from the organization and related organizations.”

In a phone interview Friday, McCartney said that she will be 68 by the time she steps down, having spent a decade as Smith College’s president. That feels like a good time to retire and bring in new people with new ideas, she said. She and her husband have purchased a home in Newburyport where they can live close to their two daughters and four grandchildren.

McCartney, who was the first in her family to attend college, said that she is most proud of the progress the college has made when it comes to access and affordability.

Last fall, the college announced that it would eliminate loans as part of its undergraduate financial aid packages and replace them with grants from the school. The college also decided to give one-time, $1,000 “start-up” grants to entering students from lower-income families, to help them purchase anything they may need to begin classes, from books to a comforter for their room.

“I just feel that this is such important work,” McCartney said.

Another high point for McCartney was the construction of the renovated Neilson Library, designed by the renowned artist and architect Maya Lin.

“It is the intellectual heart of the campus but also a work of art,” McCartney said of the building, which took six years to complete.

There also have been difficult moments during McCartney’s tenure when her leadership has been questioned. In particular, the college was rocked by a series of events in 2019, the fallout from which is still being felt.

In early 2019, students protested across campus after a staffer called campus police on a Black student worker who was taking her lunch break. An independent law firm hired by the college later cleared that staffer, who McCartney had put on paid leave, of any wrongdoing. In the wake of the incident and the subsequent demonstrations, Smith College and McCartney faced criticism for their handling of the incident and the school’s policies.

Those criticisms grew when, soon after, the college announced the appointment of Daniel Hect as the joint chief of police for Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges. Students soon drew attention to posts they said Hect previously had “liked” on Twitter, including one instructing President Donald Trump to “BUILD THAT WALL!” and another in which the National Rifle Association wishes people a Merry Christmas. Following large protests on campus, the colleges and Hect soon parted ways by what they said was an “amicable agreement.”

The fallout from those incidents put college leadership under the spotlight for how they handled racism on campus and how the school’s workers were treated.

“I think that all campuses experience the kind of crises that you mentioned,” McCartney said when asked about those moments. “It’s really important for leaders to try to be transparent and to set the right tone going forward. And that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do in my communications to the community.”

During difficult moments, McCartney said she felt she had the support of those on campus and expressed gratitude to them.

“There’s a very healthy culture at Smith and I’m just so glad I got to be a member of this community,” she said.

Asked about the biggest challenges facing her successor, McCartney said that liberal arts colleges in general need to be “laser-focused” on college access and affordability. She said that it is expensive to offer the residential experience students expect together with the support they need, such as mental health services.

“Just staying focused on what the next generation of students need in order for them to be successful,” she said.

McCartney said she has mixed emotions about her tenure coming to an end. She noted that when she first took the job, she told the college’s trustees that it was her dream job.

“How do you walk away from a dream job?” she said. “I love Smith College so very much.”

In an email to campus Friday, Alison Overseth, the chair of Smith’s board of trustees, said that in the spring the school will launch a search for the college’s next president. A search committee chaired by Susan Molineaux, the board’s vice chair, will be announced in the coming weeks, Overseth said. The college has also retained the executive search firm Spencer Stuart to aid in that process.

Overseth praised McCartney for her handling of the college’s $2.6 billion endowment and fundraising prowess.

“On a personal note, I want to acknowledge and appreciate Kathy’s naturally inclusive leadership style,” Overseth said. “She leads with honesty and warmth, and she brings humor and joy to every encounter. It has been a true pleasure to partner with her during my time as a trustee.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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