Mara O’Laughlin ’66 first arrived at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1962 as a beanie-wearing, first-year student from Manhattan. Other than a brief departure just after graduation to teach history at Romulus Central School on the opposite side of Seneca Lake, she hasn’t left.
During the course of more than 40 years of extraordinary service to the Colleges, she has taken on increasingly complex administrative roles from admissions to advancement, each one allowing her to make an indelible mark on the institution. As director of admissions of William Smith College from 1974 to 1992, and then of Hobart and William Smith Colleges until 2005, she admitted two-thirds of all William Smith alumnae. In 2005, O’Laughlin took on a new role – that of assistant vice president of institutional advancement for the William Smith College Centennial Fund, a position that allowed her to reconnect with the alums she first met when they applied. After the initial Centennial fundraising goal of $6 million was surpassed and a total of $8 million raised, O’Laughlin was named assistant vice president for the performing arts initiative. As such, she has played an important role in framing the scope of the new performing arts project, which will break ground in 2014.
O’Laughlin was also instrumental in establishing “Frank’s Books” in the Warren Hunting Smith Library on campus – an extensive collection of nearly 11,000 scholarly books from the library of Professor Emeritus of History Frank O’Laughlin, to whom she was married for 35 years. She also established the Frank and Mara ’66 O’Laughlin Scholarship, which targets middle income students of high promise in their first year.
“I am very grateful to Mara for her many years of dedicated service and for her passionate belief in Hobart and William Smith,” says President Mark D. Gearan. “The Colleges are greatly enhanced thanks to her dedication in recruiting talented students and engaging our alums in ambitious plans for the future.”
This May, 47 years after receiving her bachelor’s degree from William Smith and just six months after retiring from HWS, O’Laughlin will walk across the stage in front of Coxe Hall to receive an honorary degree, joining John Grotzinger ’79 and Christopher McDonald ’77 in receiving the Colleges’ most prestigious honor.
In honor of her retirement, we asked O’Laughlin to reflect on her years at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Q: Why did you come to William Smith in 1962?
A: When I was applying to college in the early 1960s, the world was a different place. There were few colleges where women could apply. I do remember watching the G.E. College Bowl in 1961 and being impressed that Hobart and William Smith were the undefeated champions. I had gone to a girls’ school in New York and I had the New York State Regents Scholarship so William Smith seemed like a terrific transition for me. I also thought, maybe it’s time to get this kid out of the city.
Q: You oversaw the admissions process at HWS for more than three decades. What do you see as the greatest admissions challenge the Colleges overcame during your tenure?
A: In the ‘70s and ‘80s, every men’s college from Amherst to Yale went coed. At the time, there was a two-to-one ratio of men to women at Hobart and William Smith. Our goal was to establish parity with Hobart. Ultimately, we were able to double the size of William Smith and maintain the quality of the student body. I’m certainly proud of that.
Q: You took on the William Smith Centennial Campaign and Celebration in 2005. Was that an easy transition?
A: After 31 years of talking with 17-year olds, I was ready to talk to grownups! Having admitted two-thirds of all women who ever went to William Smith, there were so many with whom I had long relationships. I was seen as the best person to reconnect with many of them to design a lasting and fitting tribute to the Centennial, one that would benefit both Hobart and William Smith. Since I knew virtually every woman and man I asked to support the Centennial, these were intimate and personal conversations about taking this opportunity to stand-up and contribute. I am grateful to President Mark Gearan who moved me into advancement and who had the confidence in me to do something I had never done before. That was very meaningful.
Q: How did you begin the process?
A: I first spoke to 20 or 30 women who were very involved with the Colleges – trustees, former presidents of the Alumnae Council – and they repeatedly expressed that one of the benefits of the coordinate system was equal leadership opportunities for women. Sustaining and promoting leadership was an obvious direction for the Centennial Campaign and together we created the Centennial Center for Leadership.
Q: When you reflect back on your career, what makes you most proud?
A: Women’s colleges have a nasty habit of disappearing – Radcliffe, Sophie Newcomb and Pembroke, to name just a few. I’m proud we’ve maintained something here that is very special and that continues to serve young women and men. I’m proud that so many women, and a few good men, stepped up to the plate to establish this ongoing, visible tribute to William Smith – the Centennial Center for Leadership. And I’m personally proud of “Frank’s Books” and our scholarship, which has helped many students and will continue to do so.
Q: Why did you decide to dedicate your career to Hobart and William Smith?
A: I didn’t intend to stay here, but I had this extraordinary experience; being married to Frank was the game changer in my life. That marriage gave me everything – my home on Seneca Lake, my job, my friends, my GPS location. I came up here to Seneca Lake from New York City just to go to college and I’ve spent my life looking at that water from both sides – my home to the east and the Colleges to the west.
Q: When you consider the future of the Colleges, what keeps you up at night?
A: The entire higher education community is biting our nails a little bit. It’s a terribly expensive proposition for families; you open the paper every day and read about the burden of student debt. When I started in admissions, we were in the business of selecting students. Today, it’s about recruiting and marketing. And despite our recent success in fundraising, we still lag behind our peers. A small percentage of the funds we need each year come from our endowment and alumni and alumnae giving. The rest must come from tuition and that puts tremendous pressure on our students and their families. There are also challenges inherent in a changing culture – we live in a digital age and we must consider how that will affect the kind of education we provide our students. How do we maintain the kind of one-to-one relationships that define our education when we are working with a generation whose world is a two-inch screen on a phone?
Having said all that I have no doubt in our direction and leadership. We have the resources and the smarts to meet these challenges, and we benefit from highly competent people who are aware of the situation and actively working for solutions. And just look at the challenges we’ve already faced and overcome – changes in demographics and admissions, setting an extraordinary goal of $200 million for the campaign and meeting it, developing a strong partnership with the City of Geneva. There’s a renaissance here and I know that if we work together, if we put our shoulders to the wheel, we will succeed. It’s going to take all of us working together.
Q: Why retire now?
A: Well, I’m still vertical! It’s been 40 years of service to Hobart and William Smith, and with the completion of Campaign for the Colleges, it seemed like a natural time. Admissions and advancement work is a tiring business and I felt it was time to take a different crack at life.
Q: With retirement now official what are your plans?
A: My partner and I are heading to Key West for about six weeks, then Vietnam, and later in the year we are returning to Italy – and that’s just Year One. But I’ll be around for Reunion and other HWS events because Geneva is my home. You know, I think we’ve finally taken the city out of the kid.