Pat McPherson at Bryn Mawr

Collage portrait of Pat McPherson by Jan Trembley '75
Collage by Jan Trembley '75
President of Bryn Mawr College
Dean of the Undergraduate College, Deputy to the President and Associate Professor of Philosophy
Associate Dean and Lecturer in Philosophy
Ph.D. in Philosophy, Bryn Mawr College
Assistant Dean
Warden, Pembroke East
Assistant and Fellow in the Department of Philosophy


Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. '69, retired in June as President of the College after 36 years of studying, teaching and leading at Bryn Mawr. She has been appointed President Emeritus and will join the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City as senior program officer this October.

"Pat has been a major actor, much consulted, in the larger world of higher education and the liberal arts," wrote Hanna Holborn Gray '50 in the introduction to a collection of letters to Pat from undergraduate classes, clubs, graduate and individual alumnae/i. "At the same time, she has been an advocate and model for Bryn Mawr itself and for its own uncompromising ways and criteria of worth. ...

"Pat's presidential tenure has represented an extraordinary period in the history of Bryn Mawr. The College is flourishing. ... The endowment has grown and two remarkably successful campaigns completed. A new science library has come into being; a new art and archaeology library will soon be finished. The budget has been balanced, a pattern of long-term planning instituted. The relationship with Haverford has become productively closer; cooperation with Swarthmore is on the rise. The visibility and reputation of the College are higher than ever. Both faculty governance and student self-governance are vigorous and effective. Above all, the College is a lively center of academic excellence that attracts first-rate faculty and students to a special community of learning. .."

"Pat's unwavering dedication to rigorous standards of intelligent thinking and constructive debate, combined with her humor and zestful delight in the variety and range of the human comedy, have communicated to all of us both her seriousness and her joy in enabling and enhancing the qualities that lie at the heart of our college."

A separate publication will be devoted to the symposium held in her honor this spring, "Liberal Education, Learning, and Public Life: Looking Towards the Twenty-first Century." Here, by popular request, Pat McPherson answers a variety of questions from alumnae/i in an interview with the Bulletin.

Your mother was a beloved English teacher at the Agnes Irwin School, and you once said you thought you might follow in her footsteps. In the summers of college and graduate school, you even taught sports at young peoples' camps. Many of us remember you, especially, from the introductory philosophy course on the Pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle that you taught almost every year until you became president. In what ways have you continued to be a teacher through your transition, over the years, from classroom instructor and professor to full-time administrator?
Mary Patterson McPherson The whole job of the president is about teaching, although perhaps in a different sense than I had earlier imagined. Part of my responsibility is to see that the educational aspect of the institution works everywhere in it. As in the classroom, sometimes you can bring people together around issues and be effective. Sometimes it doesn't work. But if you are a facilitator and have good people in place, both in the classroom and outside, to help with the development of students' interests, abilities and maturation - every aspect that the College can touch of their lives - that's exciting, that's what good teaching is about.

As a teacher and administrator during the years of student unrest and demands in the 1960s and early '70s, where did you feel yourself generationally, intellectually, politically?
I thought it was an extraordinarily exciting time to be alive, to cut one's administrative and faculty teeth. There were wonderful tensions between one's agreeing with almost everything that was going on and believing much of it was long overdue, while realizing that one had certain responsibilities to keep the ship moving at least vaguely forward. Now, would I have found it all threatening and more difficult had I been 10 years older? I could well have; I have no idea. I admired my senior Bryn Mawr colleagues, who mostly, I thought, rose to the various challenges of understanding and deploring many of the country's positions while trying to hold onto civility and the important verities.

What if that climate had existed during, say, your own junior year in college?
I was something of a heller as a student. I probably would have grabbed onto all of it.

Is the current generation of undergraduates interested in activism?
For any of us who lived through the 1960s, this is not an activist generation! There were too many students in that time, however, who wandered out to do good in the world only to get beaten over the head or realize that they had done more harm than good. This is a student generation cares about doing service intelligently and says, "These are hard jobs out there, I need some training so I don't go in half-cocked." From that point of view, theirs is an enormously impressive and mature kind of engagement.

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What are your thoughts about feminist theory in the curriculum?
I think it's been enormously helpful to every field of study and in liberating at least half the population to think freshly and newly. All of the appropriate critical apparatuses are functioning, and in many cases it's been the more mature scholars who have given leadership to fresh seeing. We have to be so admiring of how quickly the rebellion was successful and how quickly it settled down to being an important aspect of every study and a scholarship in its own right with the rigorous, careful, analytic approaches anything else should have.

Did your doctoral study of F. H. Bradley, "Transcendence and Freedom in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley," influence any of your ideas about the role of a liberal arts education in developing the responsibility of the individual?
I think I did my thesis on Bradley in part because he was one of the philosophers who wrote well and had an admirable style. This attracted T. S. Eliot, too, who did his dissertation at Harvard on Bradley. Certainly, Bradley's concern with ethical issues, notions of freedom and the importance of the transcendent also were very appealing to me.

Bradley was an imaginative as well as rigorous thinker. He was on a cusp of an older tradition, almost the reason for ushering in a new tradition of philosophy in the English speaking world and therefore is a transitional, pivotal figure. Most of us in the academy are conservators of learning and of tradition but we're also pushers at frontiers and boundaries. Bradley is an interesting figure because he was doing all of those things, and so he's congenial to me, intellectually anywise.

His was a complicated period of philosophy. It was wonderful to have engaged with that generation of thinkers, who ranged so widely and over so much material, so many areas, with great breadth and confidence. Since then, people have focused and narrowed and focused and narrowed in their training. In the old days, most faculty members wouldn't have hesitated if they were assigned a new area - they would have leapt in, thinking "how nice to do something different." Now, people can say to you, "It's not my area; it's not my field." I have always been more comfortable with leaping in and learning and thinking that I'll like it.

You were the first woman elected to the boards of the Provident National Bank of Philadelphia (1972), the Greater Philadelphia Partnership (1973), the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania (1975), and the Philadelphia Contributionship (1985). How has serving on corporate boards helped you in your career as an administrator?
I decided it was important to join those first two boards in Philadelphia for two reasons. I was trying to make a strong case that Bryn Mawr had responsibilities to the rebuilding of its city and school system, that what happened in Philadelphia was important to the future health of the College, and felt I needed to make that commitment tangible. I thought it was very important for Bryn Mawr to become known in its neighboring city, which always talked in terms of the many colleges and universities in Philadelphia as opposed to those in the immediate Delaware Valley.

I also thought that in the for-profit sector, I would be able to watch different kinds of management techniques and responsibilities laid out in ways that could benefit me as an administrator. That certainly turned out to be the case. It has widened my world in very important ways, and I think it's been very good for the College that we've stepped up to the bat any number of times in Philadelphia and people knew we had that commitment.

I've sat on a large number of not-for-profit boards concerned with public policy and educational issues. This, too, is a different world than the strict academic institution. I gained a much better sense of the strengths and fragilities of the American economy that are going to play out in an academic institution and in how parents and students are going to be able to afford institutions like this. I also learned how academic institutions are perceived if they are not well managed and what our responsibilities were to see that we ran as efficiently as is appropriate in order to hold the College's resources to its main business and not drain resources as a consequence of bad or inefficient management.

Have you noticed any decrease in the quality of students since the College decided to admit larger classes?
I'm often asked if there is a broader range in the quality of our students since our decision in 1986 to increase the target undergraduate enrollment from 1,050 to 1,200 by 1992-93. (We are still working to reach and maintain that number of 1,200.)

Recent classes have been some of our strongest ever. You know, it's such a precious little world, such a tiny percentage of the American population, these students that we're after. I once did a study of summas at Bryn Mawr because I was so tired of listening to people say that the students weren't what they used to be. If you look at who were summas 20 years ago and now, they all look rather the same. It's also the case that the people we're admitting at the so-called bottom of the class in terms of test scores are usually not the people at the bottom of the class when they graduate. Our students are a terrifically able group of people who flourish and prosper here and end up stronger by comparison than do the graduates of most institutions.

It is true that over the years, people have come to us very differently prepared. Those of you who work in high schools know that they have read less, they write less well, and their language training is usually frightful, but they're much better in the social sciences, their math skills are better, their ability at sciences is better, and they're much more plugged into their world.

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How do you see Bryn Mawr going forward as a college for women?
I think being a women's college is a real plus for us right now, as it is for the other selective women's colleges, and we are in a better position than some of them because of our geographic location and our opportunity to work with Haverford, Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania. I worry more about whether Bryn Mawr may find itself too small to manage in an increasingly pressured economy than about whether it can continue its commitment to the education of women.

If it becomes again a real problem for admissions or for the quality of life on campus, my own sense would be that the College would do well to consider something joint with Haverford as opposed to pushing ourselves into a competition that's different from the one we currently have with Haverford and Swarthmore. That would not necessarily mean the merging of the institutions - I can imagine the pluses and minuses of a single admissions office that admitted students to the two colleges. There might be a special kind of experience associated with the Bryn Mawr campus and a special kind of experience associated with the Haverford campus; students could move through both schools and have two kinds of experiences in their four-year period.

There are many different ways in which this might be structured - but it would be very foolish at this stage, I think, when these independent institutions are as fragile as they are, to think that we would be able to attract and admit our own men, and everybody would come and it would all be fine. I don't think that it would be. I've seen many changes in my life, however, so I'm not about to say that it would be impossible!

Meanwhile, I think that there is no question about what we can do, as a woman's college, for students, if they can decide that this is the choice they can make - and that's an "if."

In a time of national institution building, we seem as a country to be over committed to what I hear referred to in my corporate life as "going to scale," which means that you merge smaller units into ever-larger administrative structures. As an institution does that, it becomes almost inhuman and perhaps inhumane. We need to think that we're preparing people who can go to work in those kinds of institutions as individuals who have really come to know themselves, their own strengths and weaknesses, in a smaller environment that encourages their full maturation and helps them to develop their own inner resources and value principles. They're going to be out there on their own, and they're going to run into some pretty unattractive types. It's important that they start off knowing who they are and meaning to start out as they mean to go on, because they're not going to get a whole lot of chances to refashion themselves in that way.

The formative experiences alumnae have had here should stand them in good stead. They've had what are still very special supports for women's growth, so that they're comfortable in situations where they're in the minority or at the very bottom of the totem pole. One of the things we hear over and over again is how much better women are at relating to one another and making friends than most men, who don't make friends in the same way and therefore don't usually have the same kind of support groups.

What are some of the things you most look forward to learning about?
I think the Mellon opportunity will give me a chance to try to step back a little bit from the day-to-day pressures of keeping fragile barks afloat and do some thinking with colleagues around the country about the best ways to help liberal arts colleges move forward at an enormously interesting period. Traditional disciplinary boundaries are collapsing, and technology is here to be reckoned with in ways that are still rather unclear. Traditional graduate student preparation is not helping students as much as it could or should to be part of thinking through how the Academy will give leadership to new learning.

I will also have an opportunity to learn a lot about the museum world, about which I know very little. I'll have a chance to work with the issues around diversity and pluralism that Mellon is addressing, which are some of the most important this country is wrestling with. I expect to learn whether I can live in a less structured way without someone telling me what I'm doing every 15 minutes!

Hanna Holborn Gray '50, president emeritus of the University of Chicago, tells me that when you step out of a presidency, you work as hard as you've ever worked, but you think about your time a little differently because you organize it in a new way. To be able to say, "Gosh, I could read a book tonight" will be mind-blowing! I may have a nervous breakdown -- you can come back and ask me a year from now.

'Bryn Mawr College was a place that I had always before avoided!'

What were your most memorable, formative or shocking moments in and outside the classroom?
My hardest teaching in a formal sense was at the University of Delaware, where I took my M.A. in philosophy before coming to Bryn Mawr. As did other graduate students, I had responsibilities each year for extension courses, largely for students of unconventional age. I could have in the classroom personnel from the Dover airbase with minimal formal education, Ph.D.s in chemistry from DuPont, and women quite housebound as wives and mothers who hadn't had an opportunity to go to college and were looking for intellectual stimulation. I also had a few traditionally aged students who found it convenient to take the course in one of these extension sites rather than on the main campus. The challenge of making a class like that work when you were in your early 20s was staggering. Having to make a case for why we might want to read The Republic was taxing in a way that teaching at Bryn Mawr never was.

The most shocking thing that happened to me was coming in to teach the first day of a class, when I was just starting, at about 23. A rather large young man approached me and said why didn't I sit in the back with him where we could just talk and nobody up front would see us. I said I was terribly sorry, but I was the person who had to go up front. Then I had to teach for the whole year with him in the back!

I had a wonderful colleague in the philosophy department there to whom I went in abject terror about this teaching assignment. I had worked and worked and worked, accumulating masses of notes, as you do when you start to teach -- you simply can't imagine having a moment of silence that you can't fill. I said, "Tell me how to do this!" and he would never tell me anything except to say, "One good idea. Just go in there with one good idea, and if you can cover that in your hour, that's all you should be trying to do. Throw out those notes. Don't take in all that stuff!" That was very wise.

What was my most formative experience outside the classroom? I learned everything about being a dean, a faculty member, and a president by being a warden of Pembroke East from 1963-66. They were enormously important teachers of me, the senior classes of '64, '65 and '66.

How did you first come to Bryn Mawr? At the age of 25 or so, I suddenly found myself the senior member of the philosophy department at Delaware. Other people had died or been called to higher things. Having myself already decided to go off to Yale graduate school for a Ph.D. in philosophy, I got a telephone call from the dean, who I didn't think knew I existed, saying that as I was the senior member of my department, he hoped perhaps I would stay another year. I, of course, was thrilled! I could give leadership to the department of philosophy! But he did add, 'You're not getting any younger, and I think it would be a good thing if you found a way to do some graduate work this next year. Did you know that Bryn Mawr College takes part-time graduate students?'

Well, Bryn Mawr College was a place that I had always before avoided! I went to high school nearby (the Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont, PA) and wrote my sophomore, junior and senior papers using the College's library. All my teachers had gone to Bryn Mawr; they thought, of course, that I should go there, too. I thought it was a group of very serious-looking women! So I said "no" and went as far away as I knew to go, sight-unseen to Smith College.

Thus, I didn't know much about Bryn Mawr at that point. I came to campus and had a wonderful talk with the department chairman, Milton Nahm. He suggested that I take a seminar, which I signed up to do. That summer he telephoned to say that an assistant in the department of philosophy had fallen ill, wasn't going to be able to take up the post in the fall and would I like to do that job? I said, "Well, you know, Mr. Nahm, I have this full-time teaching job at Delaware," and he said, "Oh, don't worry. There's nothing to this. It's merely honorific and you can get a little money." I said, "Fine!"

I arrived as the assistant in the department of philosophy to find that I was to run discussion sessions for six courses in philosophy. So, I took my seminar, I ran the discussion sessions, I taught four courses at the University of Delaware, and by the end of that year, I was hooked. Like the woman who came to dinner, I have been here ever since.

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