As Sarah Lawrence College’s 10th president, Karen Lawrence, prepares to step down at the end of the year, a committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students is in the process of looking for the 11th.
The Presidential Search Committee, which was formed in May by the Board of Trustees, is engaged in a long search process. According to Vice President of Administration Tom Blum the committee includes regular, lengthy meetings, the involvement of a private search firm, and dialogue with the Sarah Lawrence Community through listening sessions.
The Committee held one of these discussions in June for faculty, staff, and students that stayed on campus for the summer. Blum said about 25 students attended it, and that the Committee received great feedback, especially from staff. And yet, at a listening session held recently in September, Blum said that out of the 15 undergraduate and nine graduate students who RSVP’d, only one person from each of those groups showed up.
Despite the disappointing turnout, Blum said he wants students to know that Administration values their input.
“It’s our intention and hope to orchestrate an open process,” Blum said.
Some students did not even know that these were being held. Vili Lehmann Boddicker ’19 said students should be a part of administration’s decisions.
“I think generally it would be nice if administration would make the students feel like they’re a part of the process or know what’s going on,” Boddicker said. “I think the students only hearing the results and disagreeing with those results puts students and administration in an adversarial position.”
Alex Wah ’19 is the student representative on the Committee. He said this is exactly the kind of problem he was elected to resolve.
“My role is, was, will be for the foreseeable future, to advocate the student voice to the board and the committee,” Wah said.
When Wah was elected last spring, he said he went around asking students what they wanted to see in Sarah Lawrence’s next president, and recorded their responses in a notebook, which he brings to Committee meetings. According to him, most of the answers he received were tied to specific issues, like diversity, financial responsibility, sustainability, and so on. The topics broached by students informed his contributions to Committee meetings in which presidential candidates were reviewed and vetted.
Sarah Lawrence hired a private firm, Isaacson Miller, to aid in the search process. Blum said Miller was chosen out of several entities vying for the opportunity, and that Miller fit Sarah Lawrence’s needs best. Miller’s job is to look for potential candidates that fit the profile set forth by the Committee and by the opinions of the Sarah Lawrence community as a whole.
“Internally, we [the Committee] might nominate someone, and then, representing the Committee, they will reach out to that person, explain what the opportunity is, provide background on Sarah Lawrence and its mission,” Blum explained. “And ‘we’ is ‘big We’: the alums, students, faculty, staff, major donors.”
Representatives from the firm are present at each Committee meeting to provide background information on each candidate and, according to Wah, help moderate the discussion. They are also constantly on the lookout for new candidates.
As of now, the Committee has compiled a confidential list of 8-10 candidates. November will be spent reviewing and comparing these potential presidents, and narrowing this list to 1-3 “finalists.” Blum said a decision will most likely be reached in January or February, unless Miller surprises the Committee with a stellar candidate.
A document, drafted by the Committee and posted publicly on MySLC, specifies the qualities that the Committee is looking for in the next president. Blum said this “position specification” guides the Committee and Miller in their search by delineating the qualities they should be looking for in candidates. It gives general information about Sarah Lawrence and its pedagogical model, the role of the school’s president, and the challenges the next president will face.
In this position specification, a list of “Opportunities and Challenges” includes, leading discussions within the community on issues of “race, diversity, and campus climate,” ensuring the financial security of the College and focusing on donor and alumni relations, and establishing and executing a “a vision for Sarah Lawrence in the 21st century.” The necessary qualifications listed for a candidate include, “personal grace in dealing with the broad spectrum of personalities,” a history of experience in financial and organizational management, and a record of fostering institutional diversity and inclusion.
As the search for Sarah Lawrence’s next president comes to a close, and the Committee continues to narrow down its list of candidates, problems concerning the representation of student voices in the search process are coming to the surface. In a discussion in the Class of 2019’s Facebook page, the leaders of several identity groups on campus expressed frustration with a perceived neglect by administration. Andre Knight, co-chair of Queer People of Color and housing coordinator for the Social Justice Co-Op, elucidated some of these frustrations.
“Comprehensive action on gathering student thoughts on the next president comes from active and continuous participation/attendance for all meetings, including a special attention paid to issues of bias,” Knight wrote. “Unfortunately, as we have officially entered November, I do not know how much conversation we would be able to have in regards to the long list of needs many students have expressed that they require in our next president.”
According to Wah, a town hall meeting on the topic will be held on November 15th at 8pm in Reisinger, at which all in attendance will have a final chance to provide their own input. In the meantime, Wah can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Blum at email@example.com. Additionally, comments, concerns, and recommendations pertaining to the next president can be submitted to the Committee on MySLC, where the position specification document is also available for review. They are located in the Presidential Search page, which can be found under the Campus Life heading.
Ricky Martorelli '19