DI: How did being an English major prepare you to be president of Sarah Lawrence? KL: My preparation in literature and my work as a scholar and teacher in the humanities is really beneficial in this job. Sarah Lawrence has been described as being one of the “inkiest” colleges in the country, so we focus on writing more than tests, for example. The ethos of the college is very much about writing and communication and creativity.
DI: Most people see colleges and universities as preparing them for a job — what are you preparing your students for? KL: In a society where college graduates change jobs — once it was 3 times, now it may be 5 times in their lifetime — preparing for a particular vocation is probably less important than preparing someone to be a lifelong learner, to be adaptable, to think of how to pose interesting questions and problems and then how to solve them, to have critical thinking skills and communication skills. This is what a liberal arts and sciences education does. I have been visiting with alumni in the country in my first year, and one alum said to me that she thought what her Sarah Lawrence education gave her was Preparing Students to Live With Curiosity Dr. Karen R Lawrence Title: President, Sarah Lawrence College D032008_WomenPrez:D032008_WomenPrez 3/5/08 6:59 PM Page 18 WWW.DIVERSEEDUCATION.COM March 20, 2008 | Diverse 19 a way of living with curiosity. That’s a very valuable resource as people go out into the world.
DI: What have been your top challenges in these first few months? KL: I have two goals during this first year, and they’re not at all mutually exclusive. One is to get to know the campus culture, to be involved with the students, the faculty and the staff closely, so that I better understand the ethos of the place. I’m trying to balance that with travel around the country to meet with alumni.
DI: What do you see as challenges facing higher education in general right now? KL: Making education affordable for the middle-class student without jeopardizing access for the neediest. It’s wonderful for the families who are getting greater financial aid; that’s a very positive thing. But there’s a real differential effect of rising tuitions on different kinds of institutions, and it’s a challenge for institutions not even approaching the kinds of endowments of the wealthiest institutions.
DI: How are you trying to meet that challenge? KL: Fundraising is a major aspect of what a president does at a liberal arts college. We have very supportive alumni, but our pedagogy is quite expensive, because it’s very tailored to the individual student. [We’re] also making an attempt to provide access to needy students who otherwise couldn’t afford to come here. I think there is a challenge now in conveying the benefit of a liberal arts education. I see a direct connection between someone’s ability to get and to keep interesting jobs and liberal arts education, but I think some of that discussion is lost in the emphasis on vocationalism. Another challenge on campuses has to be issues of security and health, figuring out how to prepare [for] and react to emergencies on campus and preserve the open campus access and policies of American education, which seems to be fundamental.
DI: Do you have any advice to other incoming college presidents? KL: Listening to the campus culture, understanding where you are and the voices of the campus culture are crucial. No matter who you are or where you come from, campuses have distinctive languages and culture. It’s important to balance what you know from the national scene with the particular ethos of the place.
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