Harvard Educational Review
  1. A Woman's Education

    By Jill Ker Conway

    New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 143 pp. $22.00

    Jill Ker Conway's A Women's Education begins with a description of her annual summer journey from Toronto to a farm in Conway, New Hampshire, over winding roads along the "twists and turns of the Mill River, a fast-running stream interrupted by the stillness of deep-brown trout pools" (p. 5). The description is an appropriate metaphor for the book, the third in her three-part memoir of her experiences as the first woman president of Smith College. Conway's book is a rare and intimate portrait of her presidency during a time of transition and challenge for women's colleges. The book is also a narrative of her personal life outside the president's office as she supports her husband John through his manic depression and also seeks to maintain her own interests and passions.

    The book is captivating as it offers an inside view of the life of a college president. Conway describes the president's role in balancing constituents' demands between practical considerations and one's own vision. She also reflects on the tribulations and exaltations of one woman doing one difficult job, setting a new course for both the institution and herself. I was inspired by Conway's actions as a president and wholeheartedly enjoyed her refreshing candor as she described her journey.

    The first chapter begins when Conway is invited to meet with the Smith College Presidential Search Committee. It is obvious that the committee was interested in Conway, and the rest of the chapter, entitled "Choice," describes her internal struggle over whether or not to become president. She explains, "If invited [to be president], I'd be facing a decision that would change my life course and John's. . . . The question was one of service. Where did I belong?" (p. 15). In arriving at this decision, Conway reviewed her personal history (previously explained in her first two books, The Road from Coorain and True North) of her childhood on an Australian sheep farm, her graduate school education at Harvard as a historian, her marriage to John, and her work as a University of Toronto administrator. Conway reveals her fears that she enjoyed the scholar's detached role and opportunity to preserve and protect her own identity, and that caring for John during his episodes of mania or depression would be nearly impossible with the demands of a president's schedule. She also conveys her excitement about the prospect of preserving a women's college and expanding existing research on women's issues. When the search committee offered Conway the job, she "decided to throw the dice" (p. 23) and to accept.

    Conway left Toronto in July 1975 to become Smith's president. She describes some of her early actions as president, such as approving the budget, launching an admissions program for older women, and confronting a shrinking endowment. As she does throughout much of the book, Conway links the spirit of the institution to the physical place. She provides a rich description of the Connecticut River Valley, where Smith is situated, as a "source of energy" and a place with a history she calls "sustaining" (p. 27).

    Conway next recounts the college's origins and describes the tensions she encountered in the faculty's understanding of the purposes of Smith College. She presents the college's two "founding utopian ideals," concepts held by two contingents of faculty members, which came to influence her decisions about Smith's future. One contingent saw the education of women as the "saving remnant in a capitalistic society" (p. 33), while the other saw it as an effort to equip women to enter politics and professions. The differences in faculty values were reflected in the larger debate in the 1970s about the future of women's colleges as self-sustaining entities. As Conway encountered these realities at Smith, she was struck by the "feistiness" of the college's governing board in selecting her as president, since her scholarship on the history of women, and her position on radically redefining the past challenged traditional academic views of history and could suggest that she would lead Smith College in a new direction. She recalls that she was excited about looking out on the "terrain for my new endeavors," but as she contemplated this "paradise" she realized that she had "no idea just how hard this particular Eve was going to have to work" (p. 37).

    The third chapter, "Energy Field," is Conway's tribute to the women of Smith College and an examination of the political pressures that she says "constantly flowed around and within any program to advance women's knowledge base" (p. 40). The political pressures manifested themselves in the various Smith College constituencies and debates over Smith's mission in the twentieth century. Conway explains her strategy for navigating among her constituents and their competing interests, and her stance on scholarship, the curriculum, and the academic and feminist politics of the mid-1970s. The chapter concludes with various memories of celebrations and individual student triumphs. As the book nears the mid-point, readers can sense Conway's personal identity shift. She remembers, "When I came to Smith, I was used to hiding behind academic robes . . . physically present but not fully there. . . . I'd never been fully present before. I'd participated, but never with the visceral sense of leading my own kind" (pp. 57-58).

    For those who are interested in the specific responsibilities of a college president, the fourth chapter, "Job Description," captures many of Conway's duties and roles. What becomes clear is the comprehensiveness of the role, as well as Conway's frequent "hat-switching." It is obvious that Conway loved many aspects of the job, yet did not enjoy others. She is less specific about those elements, although she does outline some of her challenges of that first decade: faculty opposition to her leadership and ideas, attempts to change curricular content through new incentive structures, procedural debates with faculty, fundraising and alumni relations, financial management, introduction of new programs, and scholarships that changed the college's demographics. However, she prefers to highlight the "40 percent of the job [that] was so emotionally and intellectually fulfilling that the other 60 percent didn't matter" (p. 61). Through it all, Conway recalls her vision for the college and reveals her strategies for implementing this vision as well as hurdles she had to overcome.

    The fifth chapter, "Scholars with Pines," is perhaps one of the strongest, allowing the reader a chance to know Jill Ker Conway the person as well as the president, particularly her activities, passions, and pursuits outside of her presidential duties. Her descriptions of her multiyear project designing and planting the garden and landscape of her home with John, and her stories about sharing poetry with him in the evenings when they were both home, were sweetly intimate reminders of the importance of living a life that balances the work of the institution with one's other pleasures and commitments.

    In the sixth and seventh chapters, Conway describes her work in the 1980s and the politics of women's education that influenced this work. This was a period of increasing competition for students and a time during which she attempted to mobilize the campus around her vision for Smith's future - the introduction of new disciplines, such as computer science, the expansion of the curriculum, attention to women's athletic programs - all aspects of a ten-year strategic plan she developed during this time. She reflects on what she learned by working at this "female-controlled" organization, and contemplates such issues as how to change core institutions, how to use her voice and position to catalyze change, the inclusion of the study of women and non-Western fields, and the importance of the "rationale and institutional framework for women's intellectual life" (p. 133). The seventh chapter provides a broader historical perspective on the issues in women's education, as well as other issues of inclusion in academia and shifts in the direction of feminist scholarship.

    The book concludes with Conway's description of her "sostenuto," the closing days of her years at Smith, as she reflected upon her decade as president and looked forward to consider the next part of her life's "symphony." She affirms that the "objective that brought me to Smith had been realized" (p. 138) - that is, she left Smith as an institution that was thriving both academically and financially. As Conway contemplates her next professional endeavor, she explains what she seeks: time to learn, to write, and to create a "counter record to the feminist ideals I thought so mistaken" (p. 141); to learn to analyze environmental issues; and to help manage institutions such as corporations, foundations, and colleges as a board member or advisor.

    This book is applicable to readers interested in the college presidency, in women's colleges, in scholarship and feminism, and for those who are looking to learn about a tough woman doing a tough job while confronting real challenges, enjoying a multitude of successes, and trying to live a life that is balanced between work, family, and obligations to self.

    H.G.P.
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    Book Notes