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William C. Altreuter
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Friday, February 24, 2012

Regular visitors to Outside Counsel know that two of our daughters have graduated from Smith College, and that our youngest is presently a student there. We have no other family connection to the school. I once worked with a lawyer who had gone there, and found that she was intelligent, poised and gracious, so when it was time to look a schools for our oldest Smith came to mind. (An illustrative anecdote about Marianne, my former colleague. Early on in our acquaintance I made some sort of teasing remark about her fancy college. Instead of taking offense she merely said that her school wasn't like that at all, and moved on. She was, of course, correct, and I was being a jerk, but she managed to look past it. That is what classy does.) After EGA's experience at Smith Northampton just seemed like a good place to start looking, and remarkably enough Smith has served the completely different needs, and provided completely different experiences, for all three daughters.

This week a Smith alum wrote a letter to the Sophian, the student newspaper, which is worth reproducing in full:

To the Editor,

I am the president of the Smith Club of Westchester County. I enjoy reading the Sophian online because it helps me stay abreast of developments at the school.

I read your article about [President] Carol [Christ]'s resignation and it had some interesting statistics. It mentioned the percentage increase in the population of women of color and foreign students. The gist of the article was that one of Carol's objectives coming into the position was to increase diversity and the article gave statistics that showed that she did.

As someone who has followed admissions for many years, I can tell you how the school is viewed by students in Westchester and Fairfield Counties. First, these counties are some of the wealthiest in the country. The children have parents who are highly educated and accomplished and have high household incomes. The children are programmed from day one to get into Ivy League schools.

To this demographic, Smith is a safety school. Also, very few of these students want to go to a single sex school. With the exception of Wellesley, it is not hard to get into the Seven Sisters any more. The reason why Wellesley is more selective is because it is smaller than Smith and in a better geographic location – Boston beats Northampton.

The people who are attending Smith these days are A) lesbians or B) international students who get financial aid or C) low-income women of color who are the first generation in their family to go to college and will go to any school that gives them enough money. Carol emphasizes that this is one of her goals, and so that's why the school needs more money for scholarships or D) white heterosexual girls who can't get into Ivy League schools.

Smith no longer looks at SATs because if it did, it would have to report them to U.S. News & World Report. Low-income black and Hispanic students generally have lower SATs than whites or Asians of any income bracket. This is an acknowledged fact because they don't have access to expensive prep classes or private tutors.

To accomplish [President Christ's] mission of diversity, the school is underweighting SAT scores. This phenomenon has been widely discussed in the New York Times Education section. If you reduce your standards for grades and scores, you drop in the rankings, although you have accomplished a noble social objective. Smith has one of the highest diversity rates in the country.

I can tell you that the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate because it is this demographic that puts their name on buildings, donates great art and subsidizes scholarships.

-Anne Spurzem '84

It is hard to know what would prompt a person in her 40's to send a letter like this to a student publication, and my default response was to resort to mockery and hostility. I stay my hand because of the response that the Smith community has made instead. With LCA marching at the head of the parade, students and alumnae have created a Facebook event and a Tumblr, both called Pearls and Cashmere, where past and present Smith women are invited to announce their identities and declare their pride in their college. It is a moving rejection of Ms. Spurzem's opinions, and it has made us very happy.

| Comments:
Fascinating. The letter's author is getting huge attention -- presumably more than she'd hoped for. I'm in university leadership but otherwise have no relationship with Smith. Except for now, and I'm really impressed. I gathered my own thoughts into "Two lessons on diversity from Smith College" at http://curt-rice.com. Carry on!
 

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