Radcliffe Head Offers Fresh Focus
President Linda Smith Wilson seizes opportunity to renew leadership role of women's college
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — WHILE some people are questioning whether Radcliffe College - which began as a women's annex to Harvard University - needs to exist any longer, Linda Smith Wilson, the newly inaugurated seventh president, is nothing but excited about the college's future. ``We have responsibilities for undergraduates, we have research and graduate work, and what I would like to do is add to that a public policy focus,'' says President Wilson. ``I think that we have a very strong mission to do that, a strong underpinning intellectually to do it.''
Founded in 1879 ``to furnish instruction and the opportunities for collegiate life to women and to promote their higher education,'' Radcliffe has evolved with changing needs. (See story at left.)
Today, the college functions as an advocate for women's rights to higher education and a support network for women currently studying at Harvard, as well as many alumnae. It provides scholarships, grants, internships, and programs on women's issues.
Radcliffe's highly regarded research and scholarship resources on women's history include the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America; the Bunting Institute for postdoctoral women scholars, scientists, artists, and writers; and the Murray Research Center for the study of human development and social change.
At her inauguration last week, Wilson stated her objective as president: ``I believe that Radcliffe College has the capacity, and therefore the responsibility, to contribute significantly in the development of institutional and individual leadership.''
This dual role of serving as a model of effective leadership and a training ground for future leaders is at the core of Wilson's challenge as president.
She insisted on an intellectual as well as celebratory component to her inauguration day. The ceremony took place in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard and included the traditional academic fanfare.
The event was followed by two concurrent afternoon symposia. The participants took off their scholars robes and focused their attention on the evolution of public policy priorities and the need for strong leaders in a rapidly changing world.
``We've been doing a lot of thinking about the possible options'' for a public policy emphasis, says Wilson. Formal strategic planning is scheduled to begin in April. The possibilities include a simple strategy of holding forums on carefully chosen topics, engaging in public policy studies of some kind, and creating a public policy internship program. These are not mutually exclusive, says Wilson. She has wasted no time in introducing the topic. After taking over the presidency last July, she began the academic year by engaging her students in a leadership conference.
Model leaders came to the campus to talk about their own leadership experiences and what leadership means to them. The students were asked to design an agenda for Wilson as the new president and to discuss ways in which the students and the new president should work together.
``It was absolutely dynamite to listen to them,'' says Wilson. ``They had wonderful ideas and that grew into a Radcliffe Student Advisory Council, which is now a joint administrator-student council that's ongoing.''
She views teaching as ``a real partnership'' in which teachers help the students organize their energetic idealism for constructive change.
``There is no question that the job of a university president is filled with enormous complexity,'' said Sheila Evans Widnall, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a symposium on leadership in higher education. ``It is a job that leaves precious little time for anything.''
Wilson is undaunted by long hours. ``There have always been very long days, I would say close to a double shift most of my adult life,'' she says. ``I happen to enjoy that.''
A warm and engaging woman, Wilson is a specialist in science policy and research policy. She comes to Radcliffe from the University of Michigan, where she was vice president of research. She graduated from Newcomb College, the women's college at Tulane University in New Orleans, and received a PhD in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
She eases back in her chair and reflects momentarily on her career. ``Perhaps if I had it to do over again, I would shift the balance a little more to family than I did. But the era in which I was doing this in, institutions were not as forgiving about you having other claims on your life.'' Wilson's two daughters are now in graduate school.
But does she think she could have achieved the same kind of success if she had taken more time out for family?
``I think I could have,'' she asserts, ``but it's one of those things where you don't know. I might not have been president, but my ambition was never, `I've got to be president.'''
Wilson is intensely interested in social transformations that are causing a redistribution of roles between men and women. She sees a need to help her students understand and participate in these changes. ``Although the rules now say that access is open, says Wilson, ``in reality, it isn't always hospitable for women because cultural changes take place slowly. And thriving in an environment that is not totally hospitable is tough.''
What is Radcliffe's role in teaching students how to deal with these issues? ``The main point I would like them to get is that there need be no limit on their aspirations,'' Wilson says.
There are those who say that Radcliffe does not need a president, that the institution has lost its own identity. Wilson responds: ``It's as if because you can't put this college in the same box as you put all the others, that somehow it is therefore wrong or about to fade out or ought to fix itself. I don't see any need for us to be like everybody else; we have a very good mission. We are accomplishing it well. ... I can't think of anyplace I'd rather be than in a position to help with that.''