Learned at Alumnae College

Faculty and alumnae lectures bring intellectual heft to Reunion

Alumnae College lectures offered during both Reunion weekends gave alumnae a glimpse of the new academic concentrations that students can now explore. Faculty lectures covered topics in Buddhist studies, museum studies, biomathematics, archives, and poetry. Following are samples of lectures on sustainability and South Asia, as well as from luncheon lectures given by Thelma Golden ’87, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Lynn Hecht Schafran ’62, senior vice president at Legal Momentum and director of Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Courts.

Paul WetzelRestoration of the Florida Everglades
“Fifty percent of the Everglades is gone. When we talk about restoration, we’re really talking about saving what’s left,” said Paul Wetzel, a wetlands ecologist and co-director of the environmental concentration in sustainable food. His talk, “Can Florida Everglades Restoration and Sugar Farming Coexist,” framed the struggle for the future of the Florida Everglades as a battle among the competing interests of real estate development, industrial farming, tourism, flood control, native land rights, and environmental concerns.

The problems go back to mid-century decisions to divert and control water flowing south from Orlando through Lake Okeechobee, and then meandering through the Florida Everglades to the Keys estuary. A series of channels, levees, and canals were built to redirect water east and west in order to create flood protection, and to turn wetlands into farmland. “The whole idea was to take water off the landscape and do it as fast as possible,” he said.

Since then, a host of environmental consequences—loss of native wildlife and plants, loss of soil, phosphorous pollution, saltwater encroachment, invasive plants, lack of freshwater, and more—have raised the stakes for restoring the area. Despite some hopeful solutions, Wetzel contends that full restoration is no longer possible. “After fifteen years (of study), I’ve had to modify my idea of what restoration is,” he said. “There will be some facsimile of the Everglades, but the old Everglades is gone. We used it.”

Charles StaelinCompeting economies of China and India
Laughter rippled through Seelye Hall Room 106 when Charles Staelin, professor of economics, launched his presentation about the economies of China and India with a complicated-looking equation, asking, “When was the last time you saw one of these?”

Ninety attendees collectively sighed with relief as a less intimidating explanation followed, with statistics demonstrating how labor, capital, human and natural resources, and technology all play a role in understanding the evolution of China’s and India’s economies. Both countries were poised for dramatic development after World War II, prompting Indian Prime Minister Nehru in the 1950s to declare a “great race” between the two.

Today, the race seems to have cooled a bit as both countries are experiencing slower growth with the downturn in the world economy, Staelin said. He cautions that they face daunting problems: “India a spreading political paralysis that threatens to reverse the economic liberalization that has propelled its economy over the past decade, and China an economic model based on labor-intensive exports that has lost its potential to carry the economy forward.” What are the implications in our increasingly global world, and why do we need to pay attention?

“Unless the two countries can find new ways to reignite their economies, they risk political and economic upheaval,” Staelin said. “If that happens, not only will the race between them become moot, the rest of the world will lose these countries’ potential to provide the economic stimulus that the world economy so needs right now.”

Thelma GoldenCulture, community, and contemporary art
From her earliest memories of growing up in New York City, Thelma Golden ’87 says she was “indoctrinated in culture” by women like her mother who taught her that culture is all around us, even in “the food we eat, the songs we sing,” and a teacher, who introduced young Thelma to living artists. “I knew in high school I wanted to spend my life around art and artists, and I wanted to do it at museums, where people interact with art,” Golden said.

Her speech, “Freestyle: My Journey through Culture, Community, and Contemporary Art,” traced her career in museums, which began at Smith when Betsy Jones ’47, former curator of the Smith College Museum of Art, “taught me what it meant to be a curator,” said Golden, curator since 2005 of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Before that, she spent ten years as curator of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

At the Studio Museum, which was founded in 1968 and specializes in the works of artists of African descent from around the world, Golden is following a pattern set by Dorothy Miller ’25, an early curator at the Museum of Modern Art. “There are lots of different kinds of curators. Dorothy Miller shaped that institution, and that’s what I wanted to do,” Golden said. “It’s what creates an important cultural legacy.”

She sees the Studio Museum as a place of dialogue. “Art can be a catalyst for conversations about race, culture, and gender,” Golden said. “My job is to shape our ideas about who we are and to show the world the depth of riches in this community.”

Lynn HechtWomen’s fragile rights
A luncheon talk about the effects of legal reform on women in and under the law, given by attorney Lynn Hecht Schafran ’62, had the hopeful title, “Are We There Yet?” As Schafran went through a litany of recent legal setbacks to women’s rights, however, it became clear that her answer was “no.” “Not only are we not there yet, but we’re sliding backwards,” she said. “Now I’d say my headline is: ‘Defending what we thought we had already won.’”

Schafran is senior vice president for Legal Momentum, a legal defense fund dedicated to the rights of women and girls, and directs its judicial education program. That program is aimed at educating judges—who have considerable leeway in determining trial outcomes, she said—in matters of gender bias, sexual harassment, and other issues facing women.

Progress for women under the law is under unprecedented attack, she said, by legislation aimed at gains in the areas of employment, equal pay, gender-biased policy, women’s reproductive health, and rape shield laws. She cited the Violence Against Women Act, which was backed by Legal Momentum, and which, as she said, “made a world of difference in serving victims and holding offenders responsible.” After passing as $4 billion piece of bipartisan legislation in 1994 and that has been reauthorized twice since then, the act has now become, in her words, “a political football” in the polarized House of Representatives.

“When women tell me they’re not feminists, even while enjoying all the benefits that feminists fought for, I say, ‘Call yourself what you want, but know this: These rights are new and fragile. Be prepared to fight for them.’”