By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: April 15, 2007
New York Times
LET’S start by addressing the obvious. There was no nepotism involved when Karen Lawrence was named the 10th president of Sarah Lawrence College. Despite what she describes as “the karma and coincidence” of sharing a name with the school, the match was professional, not personal.
Dr. Lawrence, 58, who will assume her post in August, comes to Sarah Lawrence from the University of California, Irvine, where she began serving as dean of humanities in 1998. Even within that large research institute, Dr. Lawrence said, she tried to create the kind of intimacy and dialogue in which liberal arts colleges specialize.
Sarah Lawrence, with its Bronxville post office and its 45-acre Yonkers campus, is nationally known for its strength in the humanities, fine arts and creative writing. The college has 1,200 undergraduates and attracts creative, high-achieving students. The 2007 Fiske College Guide describes Sarah Lawrence as “the free-spirited sister of the East Coast alternative institutions.”
On a recent visit to the campus here, Dr. Lawrence met with faculty and students in an attempt to better know the 79-year-old college she is to lead. The college has a six-to-one faculty-student ratio and prides itself on its don system, modeled after Oxford University’s tutorials, in which a faculty adviser meets weekly with freshmen and remains involved throughout their college careers. Students are encouraged to design their own course of studies; there are no department syllabuses, and grades are available only on request.
“Sarah Lawrence has a unique pedagogical philosophy, based on John Dewey, that a student is responsible for his or her own education,” Dr. Lawrence said. “But with our faculty involvement with students, you’ve got a lot of independence and yet a lot of collaboration.”
She is a fervent advocate for the value of a liberal arts education, arguing that strong writing ability, analytical thinking and cultural literacy are critical skills for a fast-changing world.
With tuition and fees topping $50,000 and a relatively small endowment, Dr. Lawrence said she saw her role at Sarah Lawrence as protecting and advancing its distinctive academic style, while “creating a bigger tent, welcoming students who would not otherwise be able to afford this incredible place.” Priorities will include building the endowment and offering more scholarships.
She also hopes to improve the college’s relationship with both Bronxville and Yonkers. The Princeton Review’s 2007 edition of “The Best 361 Colleges” ranked Sarah Lawrence as having the second worst town-gown relationship in the country. (Trinity College, in Hartford, was first.) In 2004, Sarah Lawrence students were harassed in a string of incidents; young men in passing cars hurled everything from water balloons to antigay slurs at them. Dr. Lawrence has been in touch with the mayors of both Bronxville and Yonkers and hopes the college will become more of a community destination.
“It’s exciting to be living in a place with a college close by,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ve exploited that as well as we might.”
Dr. Lawrence also said she believes faculty and students would like to see an increase in the number of male students. The college, which began admitting men in 1968, is now roughly 27 percent male. Attracting more men, she said, would involve “telling the story of the college” better, emphasizing its lesser-known strengths in the sciences and its athletic facilities.
Dr. Lawrence, who grew up in New Jersey, attended Smith College but transferred to Yale, and was in the first graduating class of women there, in 1971.
“The male-female ratio was nine to one, and you were always asked for the woman’s point of view,” she said. “I felt the burden of having to represent 50 percent of the population.”
She went on to receive her master’s degree from Tufts University and her doctorate from Columbia University. She and her husband, Dr. Peter Lawrence, a vascular surgeon, both found jobs at the University of Utah, where they lived for 18 years and raised two sons. The family then moved to California.
At Irvine, Dr. Lawrence helped develop two centers — one for writing and translation and the other for Persian studies. She also helped raise money for endowed chairs and fellowships. A professor of English and comparative literature, Dr. Lawrence has interests that include 20th-century fiction, travel writing and women’s fiction. She is particularly passionate about Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, and was president of the International James Joyce Foundation.
Dr. Lawrence will move into the president’s house in July. She and her husband will have a bicoastal relationship for now. (Her husband directs the Gonda Vascular Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is a professor of surgery at the medical school there.)
When she interviewed for the presidency at Sarah Lawrence, Dr. Lawrence told the committee she hoped she would be able to continue teaching. She was gently discouraged. (They laughed at the idea, she admitted, given the time commitment faculty members make to students.) She hopes to give guest seminars.
She also admitted to having done a brief genealogy Google search on the family name. So far, no Sarahs.