Bryn Mawr president says students are savvy but too pressured

The college student of the '80s? Thoughtful, practical, polite - even to the point of writing an occasional thank-you note. Deeply concerned about the nuclear weapons buildup and the link between student aid and draft registration. Generally disillusioned, however, about the effectiveness of the political process. And under heavy pressure to major in a field that will lead swiftly to a top-paying job.

That's the assessment of Bryn Mawr College president Mary Patterson McPherson during a stop in Chicago on a recent fund-raising trip. In a wide-ranging interview, the tall, slender, and athletic Ms. McPherson, who has a PhD in philosophy and once thought of being an Olympic equestrian, talked about everything from financial and parental pressures on students to why she treasures a liberal-arts education above all vocational competitors.

''You've got a long time to live inside your head, so it better be an interesting place to be,'' says the president of this Pennsylvania college, which includes an undergraduate liberal-arts program for women and two coed graduate schools. ''You shouldn't find yourself a crashing bore when all is said and done. . . . And as one gets older there have got to be other interests (outside of one's job) such as art, music, or literature that you turn to and draw pleasure from.''

As liberal-arts majors, Bryn Mawr undergraduates should not need to be sold on that point, but Dr. McPherson says, ''I stand up about five times a year and tell them what they're there for.'' She does it she says because she views the liberal arts as threatened, particularly at major universities.

''I think many students are forced to say what they want to do too soon,'' she says. ''In a lot of cases you're hearing what momma and poppa want them to do because people are living very hard through their children these days. I don't know whether it's because there's such a financial investment involved that they (parents) feel very panicky about it, or whether in some way their own lives aren't fulfilling, but there's a lot of heavy expectation.

This pressure, she says, leads to heavy outside job schedules and stepped up enrollment in courses in such fields as stress management. Bryn Mawr has a new health course with such a unit and ''students flock to it like 60-year-old executives,'' she says.

''There's very little do-less time to sort of wander around and grow up like we all had when I was in college. Leisure time was a great, great virtue, but there's not a lot of it anymore. Students are working very, very hard.''

Though profoundly affected in their thinking, culture, and life style by events of the 1960s, students today are more practical, sophisticated, and thorough than their '60s counterparts, according to Dr. McPherson.

''They're more effective in making change because they come at the power structure with some real knowledge of how it operates. We used to have to listen to a lot of bombast and rhetoric. Now they come with an agenda and compelling arguments all pretty well marshaled in advance.''

Though students today display more humor than their counterparts in the 1960s (''everything then was grim, grim, grim - to laugh was somehow to betray the cause''), Dr. McPherson says current ''post-Watergate'' students tend to have far less faith in the political process. ''I mean many could hardly tell you who was running for the Democratic nomination at this point.'' And, despite a concerted regular effort by officials on campus to register voters, she says, ''we're greeted with a fair number of yawns.'' Still, she says she thinks most such ''cynicism'' will fade in time as students are drawn back into the broader political process through their interest in local community issues.

As Dr. McPherson sees it, her own experience as a student was much less pressured than that of many students in the '80s.

''I was on scholarship all the way through college and I worked every summer from the time I was 14 so it wasn't that I came from any kind of a luxurious situation. But my parents weren't on my back every minute about what I was going to do. My father said very quietly, 'Now you're 14 and you should have the experience of working at something different each summer.' He didn't say, 'Look, I'm not going to support you this summer,' though in fact I think he also wanted me to earn a little money. There just wasn't the same pressure on me.''

Although headed for an education career from the start - her mother was a fifth-grade teacher and Dr. McPherson expected to become a high school English teacher - she never particularly aspired to a college presidency.

A Smith College graduate who earned her philosophy doctorate at Bryn Mawr, she taught on the Pennsylvania campus and was dean of the college before becoming president in 1978. She says, some parts of the job are especially ''fun.'' She calls fund raising a ''marvelous game.

''All the things you carefully work out tend to fail and the things you never thought possible come into your ken - someone may come in out of the blue and give you $1 million. Something is always catching you off guard.''

Now confining her athletic interests to some horseback riding and a brisk walk between 6 and 7 in the morning, she says she finds her work schedule a full one and admires those of her colleagues who manage to write books and teach as well as carry the president's job. But she says she wishes more of them were willing to speak out forcefully on the major issues of the day. She considers that role a democratic responsibility and an important one in setting a good role model for students.

''I think for the most part college presidents are a pretty silent lot right now. . . . There are a lot of cautious, careful people who are doing good jobs for their institutions, but they're not going to rock any boats. . . . Anytime they speak up they're probably going to offend two or three of their constituencies, so they shut up. That's not a good thing.''

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