On a stormy day in November 1973, I walked back across the campus to Simcoe Hall, the University of Toronto's administration building, which nestled behind the dome of Convocation Hall, looking out across a spacious circle of green, toward the amazing Victorian excess of University College, the gentler lines of Hart House, the men's union, and the nondescript international style of the overcrowded humanities library. The tout ensemble symbolized all the contradictory things I loved about the University. The scale and classical façade of Convocation Hall spoke about the national aspirations of Canada's oldest university. The aggressively Victorian mien of University College announced the weight the founders gave to its secular leanings, which opposed the church-affiliated colleges that made up the rest of the University. Every outrageous gargoyle and buttress proclaimed Darwin and Spencer. Hart House's graceful arches showed the Oxbridge loyalties that had shaped the university's intellectual aspirations, and the overcrowded and nondescript library announced the wave of expansion that had swept over the university in the baby boom years. I never looked at them all without an affectionate pleasure for the three-dimensional representation they provided of the frustrations and challenges of running part of this large and untidy institution.
But this afternoon my usual pleasure was replaced by exasperation at the day's interviews. I'd been reviewing the budgets of University services all day, telling everyone the unwelcome news that there would have to be severe budget cuts and personnel layoffs in the next fiscal year. Everyone knew the reductions were caused by declining Ontario government support for the University, but nonetheless the bearer of bad tidings always has to hear out the complaints of the victims, complaints I sympathized with even though I had to be firm about the cuts. It had been painful to tell my old physician friend that in his last years as head of the health service, he must scale back its quality. And the offbeat countercultural types who ran the best counseling service for youthful drug users around had looked at me knowingly as though they'd always expected that it was inevitable that I'd let them down someday.
So I didn't climb the stairs to my second-floor office at my usual pace. Still deep in thought about finance and politics, I came in the door to find my secretary poised by my desk. Petite and dark, with eyes that flashed, she was, to me, a kind of muse, her arms forever laden with mail and folders, her dazzling smile always urging me on. Though easily fifteen years my junior, she treated me with affectionate firmness, as if she were my mother.
As I signed the mail, she began rattling off details of my flight to Ottawa, who was to meet me, where the evening's dinner meeting was, all the while stuffing things into my briefcase. As she rammed the last folder in, she gave me a brilliant smile. "There's another letter from a search committee in there," she said, gesturing toward the bulging briefcase. "It's an American one. I hope you don't do it."
I was heading out the door, laden with luggage, when I stopped to ask the usual question. "Any news?" She broke into peals of laughter. "He's still there," she said, "and no one's got cholera yet." She was giving me the
daily bulletin on the determined emeritus professor who had barricaded himself in his office in the University library, refusing to move to the new space allocated to emeriti. He'd survived in his old office for six weeks, apparently without benefit of plumbing, using most of his time to bombard my office with wonderfully crotchety memoranda, which we all loved to read.
I was, as usual, late at the airport, necessitating a sprint through the elongated terminal for the Ottawa gate. So by the time I collapsed, puffing and sweating, into my seat, I'd forgotten the conversation. Then, as we waited for the obligatory deicing required by the early storm, I came across the letter from the Smith College Presidential Search Committee. Something of an anticlimax after being inspected so transparently almost six months ago. It contained an invitation to meet with them as soon as possible, signed by Robert Morgenthau, who I knew to be the much-respected Manhattan District Attorney. I glanced down the list of committee members, spotting the noted art historian we'd met in May at the MacLeishes', and a Harvard professor of Tudor history, who was an old graduate school friend of my husband's.
Once the plane took off, there was no more time to think about it, because I had to read the papers for my late-afternoon meeting and collect my thoughts for the dinner speech I was to make. Later, when I called John in Toronto to say good night and mentioned the belated appearance of the letter, he was instantly alert and said I must definitely meet with the Search Committee. I didn't want to change my life or the job I loved, but to please him, I answered the invitation affirmatively and set my disapproving secretary to work making arrangements, her cheeks pink with indignation, and the straightness of her back a powerful reproach.
The night before meeting the Search Committee at the Century Association in New York, I dined there with John's and my old friend and confidant, Stephen Graubard. Steve was a friend of John's from graduate school days, a historian of modern Europe, someone who'd known me since my teaching fellow days in his and John's course at Harvard. He was an enthusiastic advocate of thinking seriously about going to Smith, or some institution like it.
"Look," he said over the Century's bad dinner and excellent wine, "you've begun working in academic administration. I doubt that you'll settle for just a history department again. You should come back to the United States. There's more to be achieved here in the private system, much more than you'll be able to do in Canada."
Steve's advice and concern with my career, and John's and my happiness, recalled our years together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, years among the happiest of my life. After dinner, we slipped easily into talk about our circle of mutual friends. His affection and friendship made it seem easier to move again.
The next day, back in one of the private dining rooms at the Century, I enjoyed the initial interview. It was a welcome change from my role as budget cutter for all the parts of the University of Toronto that reported
to me. The group was pretty much what I'd meet on a Canadian governing board, but their mood was different. Faculty, the student member, and trustees alike wanted to talk about achieving greatness. How did I think
Smith's pioneering history and mission could be restated, redefined, enlarged to make it the outstanding leader in women's education for the next quarter century? I was talking to a group of energetic and affirmative people about building academic excellence and serving the cause of women, the things closest to my heart. They seemed to take it for granted that resources could be raised for any program of excellence.
It was seductive to talk with people for whom education was the highest priority, rather than one in a competing set of interests politicians traded off. I began to sense the contemporary energy and drive of an institution I knew mostly from its history. The interview hummed with vitality. They were easy to talk to about my historical work, and startled by my outsider's perception that it didn't matter in the least that all the Ivies were going coeducational. I knew there were enough bright women needing an education to go around. Besides, I thought that a women's college that drew from the best high schools around the country might be a more interesting place to attend than one peopled by graduates of exclusive prep schools who might now be lured to Harvard and Princeton. We got along well.
As is always the case, a headhunter's beguiling call or a meeting with a search committee interrupts the breakneck flow of the present and sets one musing about past and future. So I went back to Toronto puzzling about where I was in life, and where I ought to be going. The question of leaving Toronto required not just the superficial check we make in a busy life to see where a midcourse correction to the current plan might be necessary, but the deeper wrenching kind of examination that goes with the decision to pull up roots and start again somewhere else.
If invited, I'd be facing a decision that would change my life course and John's. For someone thirty-nine, a move from Canada back to the United States would be more than just another academic move. It had political ramifications at many levels. I'd left Australia for the United States thirteen years before in search of wider opportunities. When I'd met and married a Canadian historian at Harvard, it had closed the circle for me to move back to the British Commonwealth world. I loved the United States and its dynamism, its intellectual drive, its passion for getting things done, but I valued the old British sense of fair play that infused Australian and Canadian political values. Stephen Graubard was right that one could have more influence from within the American private educational system. The question was one of service. Where did I belong?
Certainly the British world wasn't my only political commitment. I was a feminist, and that was a universal cause, to be served wherever the environment offered the greatest opportunity for leadership. It was a heady time in the feminist movement in 1973. But I knew feminism was a cyclical phenomenon, so one could have the greatest impact by strengthening the institutions that kept it alive in all environments, and I knew they were in the United States.
When I looked back on my life, the story of my coming of age was easy to tell. It was the story of the bright rural child carried by education to graduate school at Harvard and the academic profession in Canada. I'd met the ideal mate at Harvard. A teacher of genius, a fellow historian, a man with deep roots in my own British Commonwealth world, a quicksilver character of such charm and wit that people of all ages and backgrounds came under his spell. He was also a man of deep spirituality, for whom, as for me, art, music, and literature were
important routes to understanding the human condition. I loved his effervescent humor, his extraordinary talent with words, and the gaiety that went with seeing life as ultimately tragic. And it was important that he wasn't exclusively an academic. He'd been an infantry officer in the Eighth Army in 1939—1945, and he'd grown up working summers in logging camps in remote parts of British Columbia. We'd begun our life together with high hopes and the absolute commitment that the marriage would be arranged so that I could fulfill my dream of full-time professional work as an historian.
We'd done all that. But a look at where I was in midlife called up a much more complex picture. For one thing, there had been painful, bruising losses as well as gains in the decade since I'd married and begun my absorbing academic career. The life plot I'd had in mind at marriage to a brilliant academic husband had stubbornly refused to materialize. There weren't the dreamed-of children, because I could get pregnant but not carry a fetus to term. Each set of hopes soon dashed was like having a stone where the heart should be.
And then, as my brilliant but mercurial husband's moods collapsed into long, profound, heartbreaking depression, I had something more serious to worry about than infertility. In the urgency of struggling for maturity to handle these somber chapters, I'd scarcely noticed the many possible paths opening in my professional life. But they were substantial, and the invitation from Smith's Search Committee brought them home to me in a concrete form by presenting the choice between the United States and Canada.
I could see that the Smith Board's interest was logical. I'd made my reputation as an historian writing on the history of women's education in the United States. I'd studied the historical circumstances and motives that produced the characteristic American pattern of coeducational higher educational institutions and elite colleges for either a male or a female student body. So I'd had many years to reflect on the ways educational institutions could foster or impede equal treatment for women.
And more recently, I'd become involved in academic administration. At thirty-seven, I'd surprised myself by setting aside the book I was enjoying writing and becoming a Vice President of the University of Toronto. While in that role, I could still pretend that I'd soon be back in my office in the History Department, getting ready to teach again. But to decide to become a college president would be to permit such fudging no longer. If I became president of an American liberal arts college with a distinguished feminist history, I'd have to commit to do it for a reasonable period of time, and that would involve a decision that would change John's and my life permanently.
I knew from observing the people I most admired who were a generation or so older than I that an adult life can be made a work of art. It's a slowly emerging design, with shifting components, occasional dramatic disruptions, and fresh, creative rearrangements. I thought of Archie and Ada MacLeish tossing away professional successes in the United States to live in Paris in the 1920s as poet and singer. Or some of my favorite members of the Harvard faculty, who'd changed countries for political or scholarly reasons. Now I'd arrived at a moment to scrutinize my life's design, and to decide how I wanted to develop the canvas. The process was helped by the arrival of a large packet of financial and academic information from Smith that confirmed that the job was doable, at least in the near term. Smith lacked a significant endowment, but its operating finances were in reasonably good order.
It was a scrutiny that for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons I was going to have to undertake pretty much alone. John was convinced I should make the move, but only I could assess whether this was a real calling--a
vocation that would call out the best in me. In the next few weeks, the scrutiny went with me everywhere. It was the subtext of my stream of consciousness at meetings of the University's governing board, on weekend hikes with John over the Bruce Trails along the Niagara Escarpment outside Toronto, at the seasonal round of Christmas parties, while shoveling the winter snow.
My life had gone at such a pace since leaving Australia, and I had moved about so much, that there hadn't been time for taking stock or dreaming about the future. I'd been preoccupied with a freshly breaking present. Graduate school examinations, producing a doctoral thesis, marrying someone my family didn't approve of, moving to Canada, coping with John's long hospitalization for depression.
When I cast up the accounts on the matter of staying in Canada or moving into a new institution and a more public role, I thought the negatives clearly predominated. I was by nature solitary. Born on an isolated sheep
station, virtually an only child while my brothers were in boarding school, I needed the quiet of libraries and the comfort of losing myself in some research project. The sounds I liked best were the subdued rustle
of manuscripts and papers in an archive, and the hushed background voices of a library staff careful not to interrupt. I could manage being with people constantly, but I found it exhausting, an inheritance of a childhood where we could go months without seeing another human being come by the homestead.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Woman's Education by Jill Ker Conway. Copyright © 2001 by Jill Ker Conway. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.