When Susan Scrimshaw was hired in 2008 as president of the Sage Colleges, which includes Russell Sage College, a women’s school in Troy, N.Y., Sage’s situation was difficult. The college had plummeting enrollment, insufficient funding, and “they weren’t even washing the windows,” Scrimshaw says.
But she was committed to keeping Russell Sage’s all-women’s identity, which, she says, gives students “tremendous affirmation and support for who they are. If you go to a co-ed college, you’re always going to be your gender or your gender identity. At a women’s college, you’re yourself. So you get affirmation because you’re good in math or you’re good in science. Nobody says you’re a good woman in math.”
Scrimshaw’s strategy was to revamp the curriculum with the faculty’s help, invest in the sciences, and reinvent the graduate school. Sage now has a $2 million grant from New York State for science education and has established three professional schools.
Still, Russell Sage needed to attract more applicants and more donations. The school overhauled its recruiting and reached out to women who would be the first in their families to attend college. Applications have risen by 157 percent. Fundraising, which had never brought in more than $17 million in any campaign, has nearly reached a $50 million goal tied to the college’s centennial this year.
Scrimshaw has worked in higher education since 1969. She was raised in Guatemala, where her parents traveled from village to village conducting projects to improve public health. She will retire from the presidency of the Sage Colleges in June to devote more time to her parallel career as a medical anthropologist and carry on her parents’ work as co-chair of the board of the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation, named after her father, which employs science and education to fight hunger and malnutrition.
Fighting for women is “in her blood,” she says. Her grandmother, who was a graduate student at Columbia, once chained herself to a fire hydrant in Morningside Heights in support of women’s suffrage. —Louise Bernikow ’61