A champion
of education
A champion
of education
A champion of education

Virginia Smith, the 1991 Alumna Summa Laude Dignata has been fighting for higher education since she graduated. Her latest mission: Hold together a college torn by strife.

By Jean Reichenbach | Illustration by Ken Shafer | June 1991 issue

When the president of the all-woman Mills College resigned last year, after a controversial and short-lived decision to admit men to its undergraduate programs, Virginia Smith stepped out of retirement to become acting chief executive of the 800-student college in Oakland, Calif.

It’s hardly surprising that the trustees turned to this veteran educator and 1946 UW law school graduate, who will be honored at the 1991 commencement as this year’s Alumna Summa Laude Dignata, the highest honor the UW can bestow on any graduate.

Smith, who served as president of Vassar College from 1977 until her retirement in 1986, has been described as “among the most distinguished educators in the United States today” by the late UW history scholar Solomon Katz. A 1975 poll ranked Smith among the top 50 influential leaders in the field of higher education.

She has held academic and administrative posts at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Puget Sound and Seattle Pacific University. She was assistant and then associate director of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. Smith also became the first director of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education within the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

When she retired from Vassar, she did not expect to head another college administration. But across the nation at Mills College, the trustees faced budget constraints and falling enrollment. Last spring, to boost enrollment, they approved undergraduate co­education (Men are already admitted to graduate programs.). The intensity of the protest that followed—including rallies, candlelight vigils, a two-week student strike, and T-shirts proclaiming “Better Dead than Co-Ed”—came as a surprise. Not just the trustees were caught off base, Smith notes, but also the campus and alumnae community which knew, in advance, that the action was under serious consideration.

If a high school student asked Smith’s advice on choosing a college, her counsel might include: “Go to an institution that understands itself well enough to be able to explain what it is.”

“I’m often asked ‘Why were the trustees caught off base?'” reflects Smith. As she explains it, many people—including students, faculty and alumnae—were shaken by the depth of their own feelings when the action was finally taken. “Have you ever lost something and realized you didn’t know how much you valued it until you lost it?” she asks.

Within weeks of the original decision, the trustees agreed to delay admitting men, pending the success of a plan to save the school. Parts of the package include increased faculty work loads and an alumnae-led campaign to substantially increase the school’s endowment. Without the proposals the decision for co-education would have stood, Smith believes. After the trustees approved the plan, Mary S. Metz, Mills president since 1981, resigned. Metz had voted in favor of the co-educational plan.

The Mills experience is a case study in alumni action. Asked for her overall views on the role for alumni in university decision-making, Smith replies, “To some extent the alumni and even the trustees are not the people who have to implement decisions and really work with them to the point where they succeed or fail. … The alumni should be listened to but they’re not going to be responsible so, in some cases, they should not always have their counsel taken.

“But remember,” she adds with a touch of humor in her voice. “I’m also a college president.”

Back in January 1941, Smith was a UW freshman only a month out of high school and “very eager to start college.” She graduated in 1944 with a bachelor’s degree in general studies. Two years later she received a law degree and, in 1950, added a master’s degree in labor economics.

“I really do value the education I got at the University of Washington, particularly the law school which, when I was there, was very small, but also very excellent,” she reflects. Smith took special pleasure in participating in a debate-type program that sent teams of students to community groups. A key moment at the UW was attending an economics seminar taught by then-visiting professor Clark Kerr.

Smith has been described as a “protege” of Kerr. He inspired her interest in labor relations, a specialty she pursued in the law practice she conducted through many of her academic years. She joined the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California at Berkeley in 1952, the year Kerr became chancellor, and served as assistant vice president in his administration from 1965 to 1967. She subsequently joined the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, a “think tank” which Kerr chaired. “That was a lucky course,” she says of that long-ago UW seminar.

Smith was born in Seattle in 1923, next-to-the-youngest of six children of a tool and die maker. Neither of her parents were high school graduates, which she notes was “not unusual” in those days.

Smith “worked everywhere” while at the UW including a campus soda fountain, the reserve room at the library, and in the art department as part of the National Youth Administration, precursor to today’s work study programs.

A staunch advocate of liberal arts education, Smith’s views have changed little since she told graduates at the 1977 Vassar commencement: “I’ve heard estimates that today’s graduates will change their jobs four times over during their careers and that 80 percent of all of today’s jobs have skills that can be learned within six weeks. Why, then, would we be so shortsighted and so impractical as to waste four years on preparation for initial entry to that kind of job market?”

But a liberal arts education can also prepare students for the work world. Unfortunately, students don’t always recognize this. “They think of higher education as a producer good, something you take in order to do something else,” Smith says. “I see it as a combination producer and consume; good, where you see intrinsic rewards along the way and make education a friend for life.”

If a high school student happened to ask Smith’s advice on choosing a college, her counsel might include: “Go to an institution that understands itself well enough to be able to explain what it is.”

Smith also advocates “front loading” the money spent on undergraduate education in favor of high quality, freshman-level courses. Educators cannot afford to wait for “the other end,” she notes, where some students will be lost by dropping out.

Smith identifies money and minority access as issues that should be of top concern to policy makers, induding a leader who wants to be an “education president.”

Financial aid programs have not kept pace with college costs, she notes. As costs rise, without a comparable increase in available financial aid, higher-cost institutions become progressively out of reach. That, in turn, closes the doors to the institutions that might best serve a student’s needs.

She would like to see federal rewards—perhaps matching funds—to states that fund greater amounts of student aid. She also advocates federal encouragement, such as grants or special awards, to colleges and universities that show initiative in recruiting, retaining and advancing minority students. “This is a critical factor in the whole human resource system in the United States,” she observes. “We need to involve more minorities at all levels.”

When Smith was asked to take the Mills post she agreed to hold the job no longer than one year. She will step down in mid-July with the appointment of Princeton University Vice Provost Jan McKay to the position on a permanent basis. Smith, meanwhile, will continue her work as a consultant on higher education matters and as a director of the Research Project on General Education sponsored by the Society for Values in Higher Education and funded by the Exxon Education Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

She leaves an institution that may be an endangered species. More than 200 women’s colleges have become co-educational in the last 30 years and studies show only a tiny percent of today’s high school women are interested in attending a single-sex college.

But, Smith notes, women who try female-only education generally like it and often become, like the Mills students and alumnae, very committed to the institution. The environment provides a special freedom of development, alumnae report. “Anyone who has had any contact with women’s education knows it’s a different process,” Smith says. “It would be great if, at some point, every woman could have some of this, sense the freedom of it.”