‘Busy being bold’: As she prepares to retire, McCartney uses speeches to reflect on a decade of leading Smith College

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 05-23-2023 5:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Kathleen McCartney took the helm as president of Smith College in 2013, she concluded her inaugural address by describing people as “busy being born,” with birth serving as a metaphor for the constant change people undergo in their lives.

Ten years later, as McCartney prepares to step down from the position, she’s encouraging the college to follow a new ethos — the concept of “busy being bold.”

“The last 10 years is really a story of our shared ambitions. It’s a story of our successes,” McCartney said in remarks last Friday in front of an auditorium full of Smith alumnae. “And for me, this is primarily a story of our partnerships, because nobody does this work alone.”

McCartney gave two speeches leading up to Smith College’s commencement for the Class of 2023 last Sunday, likely to be the last two she gives in her role as president of the college — the one held on Friday in Wright Hall, and one Saturday as part of the school’s traditional Ivy Day celebration, given in front of both the graduating class of 2023 and members of previous graduating classes on campus for reunions.

Since becoming president, McCartney has seen the women’s college become a much more selective institution, with acceptance rates decreasing from 41% when McCartney first became president to 19% for the Class of 2027, according to the college. It’s seen the introduction of new courses in data science and Middle Eastern studies for Smith students, as well as the recruiting of notable faculty members like Loretta Ross, recipient of a famous MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2022.  Smith also eliminated 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

McCartney brought in notable commencement speakers over the past 10 years, including Oprah Winfrey in 2017 and Nancy Pelosi in 2020. McCartney had also arranged for Christine LaGarde, at the time the head of the International Monetary Fund and the current president of the European Central Bank, to speak at commencement in 2014, but LaGarde notably withdrew after her scheduled appearance resulted in widespread protests over the IMF’s policies in developing countries.

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“I saved the 500 letters I got from faculty, students and staff,” McCartney said on Friday. “I’m going to donate them to the [Smith] archives, because I think it’s really a moment in our culture.”

During McCartney’s Ivy Day speech, she told the Class of 2023 that she felt a special connection to them, as both their and her time at Smith’s was coming to an end together.

“Like you, I know a very significant life transition lies ahead,” she said during her speech. “And I know from experience that change is always hard, even when we choose it.”

She described in her speech the anthropological concept of liminality, or the transition between one stage and the next. She said that all great stories require liminality, citing literary examples from “Crime and Punishment,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Lord of the Rings.”

“Whenever we let go of what we know, there is discomfort. Discomfort sounds unpleasant, and it is,” she said. “We cannot be afraid of discomfort. Instead, we can reframe it as the first step in our journey towards transformation.”

McCartney said in her Saturday speech that she would be spending her retirement taking long walks on the beach in Cape Cod, spending time with her five grandchildren and finally getting around to reading “War and Peace,” the lengthy novel by Leo Tolstoy.

“Even as I look forward to a new life beyond Smith, I take comfort from knowing that we will always belong to Smith, and Smith will always belong to us,” she said. “I also take comfort from knowing that good work lies ahead — for all of us.”

Prior to presiding over the presidency, McCartney served as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. McCartney will be succeeded as Smith College’s president by Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who is set to take office officially on July 1.

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