Madam Presidents

Four female college presidents educate their students amid growing distractions and shrinking budgets.



Our county is ahead of the curve again. Only about 23 percent of all colleges and universities in the U.S. have female presidents, according to the American Council on Education. In Westchester, however, four out of nine such institutions are helmed by women.

Those four schools cover quite a range of territory in curriculum, mission, enrollment, and, yes, tuition. But the schools’ quartet of presidents all came from families that emphasized the importance of education. All share appreciation and respect for their mentors, and a drive to provide inspiration to upcoming generations. And, if you want an easy laugh, just ask any one of these college presidents about their spare time!

The Explorer
Molly Easo Smith
Manhattanville College, Purchase

When Molly Easo Smith was growing up in Chennai, India, her grandmother often would sit with her while she did her homework. The older woman had had little time in her life for formal education; she had married at 12, and, by 18, was a widow with two small children. But she had such a lifelong “yearning for learning,” that she studied and absorbed the lessons along with her young granddaughter. Though her grandmother died when Smith was 13, the Manhattanville president credits her with instilling in her the passion for education.

“She was one of a constellation of women for whom learning was very important, but not accessible,” says the 52-year-old Smith. “My grandmother always knew education was a transformative thing in her daughter’s life. My mother went to high school.” Smith went much further.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Madras, India. She chose her major at least partially in rebellion against her parents, who wanted her to become a doctor. Inspiring teachers influenced Smith’s choice, as did her aunt, who was an English professor. She often read poetry to Smith and encouraged her early love of reading. Smith recalls that as a child she read “all the big nineteenth-century novels” by the likes of Thackeray and Dickens and actually wished those novels were longer. “It was a time to enjoy life and read,” she says.

Smith came to the U.S. in 1981, after the University of Delaware called to offer her a teaching assistantship. “Education in the United States seemed absolutely freeing and energizing,” Smith says. Graduate courses in Delaware were followed by a PhD in English from Auburn University in Alabama, where Smith was also a teaching assistant.

Before coming to Manhattanville in 2009, she taught English at Ithaca College, Saint Louis University, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Stephen F. Austin State University, and Seton Hall University, where Smith was also dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and at Wheaton College, where she was a provost and vice president for academic affairs. “Every place made me take multiple steps forward,” she says.

After making the move to administration, Smith missed the daily give and take of the classroom, but she continues to be involved with students, enlisting them to “participate in committees, projects, and discussions, thus ensuring their growth beyond the classroom.” She says, “In a way, my role as an educator and teacher has never stopped.”

Smith compares Manhattanville to a small village. Besides faculty and staff, its roads, facilities, grounds, and buildings are populated by some 1,700 undergrads and 1,200 graduate students, roughly 37 percent of whom are from Westchester. “As president, I attend to all aspects of life in this ‘ville.’ My role is to ensure that we continue to remain vibrant and valid as a community and that we continue to realize our mission.”

The economic downturn has become her biggest current challenge. “The cost of providing a quality education continues to rise,” she says. Undergrad tuition runs about $16,515 for the semester.

Most of Smith’s time is devoted to Manhattanville; she even lives on campus with her husband, Duane, also an education administrator. They have an adult son, Christopher. Smith loves spending time with her six-year-old grandson, who helps her, she says, “see the world through different eyes.” She squeezes in a couple hours of tennis every Sunday and also writes short stories, fiction based on memories of her early years in India. “That’s what I do when I’m most able to relax”—something that happens all too rarely.

The Pioneer
Karen Lawrence
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville

Lively dinner-table discussions while growing up in the 1960s helped fuel Karen Lawrence’s interest in education and in the world at large. Her family was excited about the political, cultural, and social changes in the wind, and viewed education as a step on the road to giving back to society. Her father was a businessman and a sculptor; her mother worked part-time and did volunteer work in the community. President Kennedy’s principles had such an influence on the household that Lawrence’s older brother went to Africa as one of the first Peace Corp volunteers.

Lawrence enrolled at Smith College, a women’s school, in Northampton, Massachusetts, in part because the professors were “terrific role models,” she says. “They were living lives you could see yourself living.” Though she considered majoring in psychology, English won out. “I love narrative, which is often the most important way of conveying ideas.”

After two years at Smith, Lawrence transferred to Yale in 1969, when the elite college began to admit women. “It was a transitional moment in education. Students were involved with what was happening in the world, in politics. It was an exciting time to be on campus.” In 1971, she was among the first women to graduate from the university, earning high honors. She continued her education, receiving an MA in English from Tufts and a PhD with distinction in English from Columbia.

After graduation, she taught English and chaired the department at the University of Utah and was dean of the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. Lawrence has written seven books including several on James Joyce; she served as the president of the International James Joyce Foundation at Ohio State University for eight years.

She accepted the job at SLC in 2007, fantasizing about going into Manhattan regularly to enjoy music and theater—but she has very little downtime. She lives on campus, the site of most of her activities. Lawrence has a bicoastal marriage; her husband is director of the UCLA Gonda (Goldschmied) Vascular Center; they are parents of two adult sons. Her days often start with spinning or aerobics classes and end with student performances and events. Lawrence enjoys playing piano but rarely practices. “I’m getting worse instead of better,” she says with a laugh.

She’s found that living in the president’s house on campus provides “benefits and advantages,” including continuing her family tradition of lively dinner-table discussions. These days, however, it’s more likely to be students rather than relatives contributing to the chatter.

She makes a point of inviting all of SLC’s first-year students over for dinner. “It takes most of the year to get all of them over here,” she says. “It’s a great way to get a sense of what’s on their minds.”

Lawrence is striving to find ways to stick to the budget while maintaining the high teacher-to-student ratio that is the norm at SLC. The college averages a dozen students in seminars and fewer than 20 in 90 percent of its classes. “We could have increased the numbers, but would have lost our distinctiveness,” she says. Instead, she implemented a two-year wage freeze for staff and faculty and is launching a fundraising campaign. The college provides financial assistance to 60 percent of its roughly 1,200 undergrads. (SLC also has 350 graduate students.) With program costs of $42,600 for 30 credits, “it’s more and more difficult for students to afford the type of education we provide,” she admits.

The Legacy
Karen Smith
The College of Westchester, White Plains

Karen Smith’s first job was in education and, though she flirted with other careers, she found her niche in academia and wouldn’t have it any other way.

When Smith, now 48, was in her tween years, her father—a former high school teacher and later an administrator and executive vice president for Berkeley College—bought the Westchester Business Institute, now known as the College of Westchester. The whole family pitched in to make the venture a success. Weekends, Smith and her four siblings helped out with odd jobs. Her primary tasks were cleaning and stuffing envelopes. “It was great fun,” Smith says. “We got paid in hamburgers.” Smith also remembers that they all took their work very seriously and felt they were playing a role in helping the school grow and expand.

Bit by the photo bug as a teen, Smith studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology and earned an associate’s degree in preparation for a behind-the-camera career in advertising. A class trip to the studio of a successful Manhattan photographer caused her to switch directions. Listening to the pro’s description of his activities triggered some soul searching: “Did I really want to make pretty pictures of shiny products that would end up in various magazines for the sole purpose of sales? I decided it was not really how I wanted to spend my life.” Smith realized she’d rather work in a field in which she could help people.

At 20, she returned to the College of Westchester to study accounting and, once again, pitched in, answering phones and helping out in the administration office. In 1985 her father offered her a full-time job. “I accepted,” she says. “I’ve stayed at the school for twenty-five years.”

Her responsibilities grew as she progressed through the ranks in a variety of positions from admissions associate to senior executive vice president. During that time, she went to Concordia College at night to complete her bachelor’s degree and earned an MBA at Walden University. Smith opted not to pursue a doctorate on the advice of her mentor, CW’s President Emeritus William Papallo, who has a PhD. Though both believe in the value of a PhD, he felt that Smith’s experience was critical to her ongoing achievement and that taking time away from the college might hinder the school’s success.

CW’s board of trustees appointed Smith president of the family-owned school in 1997; her father has been chairman of the board since he bought the college. “Once I was in the role of president, I realized how annoying I must have been to my predecessors.”

In the decades since her father bought the school, it has evolved from a “basic secretarial school.” Under her stewardship, it has become regionally accredited (a step up from the national accreditation it received under her father) and today offers AA and BA degrees. Smith reports CW may eventually add a master’s program. However, she says, “the school will maintain its career focus, its focus on service, meeting the students’ needs in and out of the classroom, in a congenial environment.”

In her all-too-rare spare time, she still enjoys photography and loves reading and anything related to the visual arts. However, spending time with her husband and two daughters, nine and 10 years old, is “my number-one focus and priority.”

Citing her father as her biggest inspiration, Smith recalls him telling her she could be anything she wanted to be, a message she now shares with her daughters and the CW community. Smith hopes that the school’s 1,100 students will follow her example by choosing satisfying career paths. She urges them to consider their happiness as well as their earning power. “You can make money in a profession you love,” she says.

She saw her encouragement of students realized in June last year, when CW graduate Jessica Perilla was honored with the college’s Alumni Achievement Award. After receiving a multimedia degree at the college, Perilla started JPD Studio, a thriving digital design business. JPD’s four full-time employees design websites, logos, newsletters, marketing campaigns, and more. The company has dozens of clients including the City University of New York, Real Simple magazine, John Wiley and Sons publishing, Aéropostale, and Manhattan’s trendy ilili Restaurant. At the awards ceremony, the president recalls Perilla telling her, “You inspired me to think I could do things like that.”

The Experimenter
Kimberly R. Cline
Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry

The importance of education and working hard were never abstract notions for Kimberly R. Cline. Her mother taught math, and her father pooh-poohed the idea of paying children to get good grades. Cline remembers him saying, “You’re expected to get all As; you have the capability.”

Growing up in North Carolina, she knew from age seven that she’d attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “You either rooted for NC State or for Chapel Hill,” she says. “Besides, it was affordable and offered a great education.” Cline was less positive about her major. “I was sure I wanted to be a pediatrician, until I had to cut up an animal larger than a frog.” She got her undergrad degree in industrial relations—what we now call HR—then headed for Hofstra where she attended law school, completed an MBA in marketing and accounting, and received a doctorate in educational administration.

She views each of her courses of study as helpful in different ways. Industrial relations taught her the importance of working with “the right people, with the right training, and the right attitude.” The degree was, she says, a great foundation for her law and MBA studies, which “expanded my areas of expertise.”

In law school, she learned to boil down and articulate concepts and not to be distracted by red herrings. And, “as I accepted legal and business positions in higher education, I felt it was important to earn a doctorate in education, which helped to prepare me for new leadership opportunities.” Cline credits the doctoral program with readying her for her job as chief financial officer of the State University of New York, where she was responsible for balancing a $10 billion budget. “I was able to see sixty-four college presidents in action,” she says. “It was like benchmark training by osmosis.”

Cline left that job in 2008 to become president of Mercy College, downsizing from SUNY’s 400,000 students, roughly 7,000 full-time faculty, and 64 campuses statewide to Mercy’s 10,000 students, 200 faculty members, and five campuses in Westchester and New York City. “I love dealing with the students and faculty, creating a culture of caring, giving the students a good experience and readiness for life.” Current tuition is in the $692-to-$798-per-credit range.

Cline has three novels in the works, but “it will be ten years before I do anything with them,” she says. As a mom, wife, president, “some things have to go on the back burner.” She has a 17-year-old son, and two daughters, 18 and 22. Her husband is an attorney, a managing partner with a Long Island law firm. “I’m not that exciting,” she says. “My parents said, ‘Be thankful for the good things and don’t worry about what you don’t have.’” Those are words that her students would be wise to take to heart.

Elzy Kolb is a White Plains-based freelance writer and editor.