Leadership & Governance

From First-Generation Student to College Leader

Kathleen McCartney, Smith College

May 01, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz

As the first person in her family to go to college, Kathleen McCartney understands the challenges facing first-generation students. Today she is president of Smith College. In a recent conversation, Ms. McCartney talked about how colleges are better at serving such students, the importance of mentors, and how her background shapes her approach to college leadership.



LIZ MCMILLEN: I'm here today with the President of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney. Thanks very much for being here.

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: It's great to be here. Thank you.

LIZ MCMILLEN: Absolutely. Kathleen, I understand that you are the first member of your family to have gone to college.


LIZ MCMILLEN: What was that experience like for you?

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: Well I grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, which is a good place to grow up in because Tufts University is there. And lived at home and didn't have the best college counseling, didn't know enough to apply to live there, but lived at home. Walked up the hill to Tufts everyday and got an amazing education. I'm really proud to tell you that I've been a Tufts' trustee which feels like completing a circle of some kind.

And the best thing that happened to me at Tufts was having an amazing woman mentor who convinced me that I needed to enroll in a Ph.D. program in developmental psychology. I'm quite certain I never would have done that without her encouragement.

LIZ MCMILLEN: How did she convince you to do that?

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KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: You know, this is a funny story really, but I was taking child development with her. And she asked us all to attend a colloquium that afternoon. I had no idea what a colloquium was. But a professor said to me that I should do it, so I did. I was the only student in a class of 60 that went. And she just started to take special interest in me.

I worked in her research lab. And she was just an amazing mentor for me. And I think helped me realize a potential in myself to actually be a professor. It's hard when you're 20 years old to think about, well, maybe I could be a professor, especially when you come from a working class family.

It was gradual, but I remember she took a lot of time helping me even select the colleges and universities I would apply to.

LIZ MCMILLEN: How did that experience affect the kind of college leader you eventually became? And what lessons did you draw from it?

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: Well, I think that I've always been interested, as a researcher, in children in poverty. And most of my research has been on preschool education, child care, that sort of thing. So there's no doubt in my mind that a concern for equity based on my own personal experiences led to that research topic. And keeping Smith accessible and affordable is definitely a main goal that I have going forward. And fortunately for me, that's also a longstanding commitment of Smith's.

LIZ MCMILLEN: What do you think Smith College offers a student like you once were?

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: I think that colleges have gotten so much better at supporting low-income students. I'll just give you an example of the range of ways. We have an orientation for first generation students. I attended that last year. We all cried together sharing our experiences.

We have special mentoring programs for first generation students so that they can develop those kinds of close working relationships with faculty that happened for me organically. We have praxis experiences, summer internship experiences where we will actually pay for a low-income student to work at a place like a Chronicle. Suppose they were interested in journalism, we might actually support a summer experience for them there. Counseling services. Just a range of things that really weren't available for me.

And I think the goal really is to provide the kind of mentoring and support so that they can see themselves doing whatever they want to do.

LIZ MCMILLEN: Previously, in your career, you were dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education at a large centralized research university. Now, you're at a small, private liberal arts women's college. What's been the most challenging aspect of that transition for you?

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: I don't know that it's been challenging. Harvard's so decentralized that when you're a dean of one of the professional schools, it might be the law school or the Kennedy School of Government, or the School of Education, I think the deans there sometimes say it's like running a small college because you have your own library, your on development team, your own finance team. So in many ways, I thought it was really good preparation for Smith.

But I think, you know, moves are challenging. I mean, they're transitions in every way. I mean, different culture to become accustomed to and to work within, different team, different geography, the need to build new friendships.

But that's exciting too. I think it's fun to be on the learning curve. And I've certainly been on the learning curve since last July.

LIZ MCMILLEN: You mentioned you are a trustee at Tufts. What kind of perspective does that give you into the operation of a college or university? And are there things that you want trustees to know about the challenges of being a president?

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: Well, technically, I'm a trustee emeritus so I have served, but I think that was also an enormously important experience for me with respect to knowing how to do the job. I got very close to Larry Bacow and then Tony Monaco. In fact, I was on the search committee that hired Tony Monaco, the current president.

But I think one of the things I really learned to appreciate from being on both sides is, you know, the difference between governance and management. So trustees sometimes want to manage, but we really need to let the team on the ground manage. Our job is to really govern and make suggestions of course. It's hard not to make suggestions, especially for the academics like me who are on the board, but to really respect the people on the ground.

LIZ MCMILLEN: So you've been in office, what, about ten months now?


LIZ MCMILLEN: Yeah? What has surprised you about the job?

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: A lot of people have asked me that. And it really is the opportunity to work with the students at Smith. They are just a special group who really love their college president. I don't know how else to say it. But when my daughters came to the inauguration, my daughters are 28 and 31, and they saw all these Smithies taking selfies with me and there was a dance for me and so on. My daughters, who had gone to coed liberal arts institutions, Middlebury and Wesleyan, they were really surprised. They just didn't have that kind of relationship with the college president.

So that's been the biggest surprise. I wouldn't think they would care about hanging out with a middle-aged college president at a basketball game, but it turns out they do. So as a developmental psychologist, that's wonderful for me. I really enjoy spending time with young people.

LIZ MCMILLEN: What's the most challenging part of the job for you?

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: You know, that's easy. It's the schedule. It is not the work. People keep saying, isn't this hard or making decisions hard? It's not. The schedule can get unwieldy. So that's the hardest part of the job. And maybe that's OK the first year. But I'm going to try to tame the schedule a little bit next year.

LIZ MCMILLEN: So you've mentioned that you're a developmental psychologist?


LIZ MCMILLEN: I imagine that would be great preparation for a presidency.

KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: I think it is. And some people have joked with me. I once ran the Lab School at the University of New Hampshire, which was a school for preschoolers. So if you can run a school for preschoolers, you can probably run just about anything.

LIZ MCMILLEN: Great. Well thank you, Kathy, for being here today.


LIZ MCMILLEN: This has been very fun.