A Leader for Us All
President Kim Cassidy discusses how her experiences as a teacher, scholar, and leader inform her holistic vision for Bryn Mawr College.
By Priya Ratneshwar
Despite having taught educational psychology at Bryn Mawr nearly every fall for the past 20 years, Kim Cassidy began the first day of class last September with a familiar tinge of worry. Her students always finished their semesters as a team, as engaged with each other as they were with the curriculum, but in those initial moments, the students’ ability to click with each other—and with her—was a question mark.
Cassidy began the course not with a review of the syllabus or a reminder of classroom policies but by coaxing the group to recount their summer adventures. “I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the interesting things that they did, much of it directly relevant to the course,” Cassidy noted in her blog, Dispatches from Taylor Hall . By the end of day two, the students were markedly more relaxed, and their discussions were alive with thoughtful exchanges. “I could see the very beginnings of a community forming,” she wrote. “I know that we have a long way to go before everything is clicking, but we are off to a strong start.”
The past year has been full of “first days” for the newly minted president of Bryn Mawr College, and whether Cassidy has been tackling them inside or outside the classroom, her talent for community-building has been lauded as much as her rigorous scholarship and strong leadership.
When the Board of Trustees named her interim president in July 2013, Chair Arlene Joy Gibson ’65 cited not only Cassidy’s “impressive career” and “sparkling intelligence” but also her “warm sense of humor” and “natural spirit of collaboration.” The latter qualities have proven especially useful as Cassidy has worked with other Bryn Mawr leaders to bolster the campus community amidst turnover in several senior administration positions in 2012 and 2013.
“It felt difficult and unsettling to the campus,” Cassidy said last fall. “The campus knew that many of these departures were about opportunities for those who left. Still, the challenge has been to reassure the community that we’re in terrific shape: we have had record numbers in admissions, the quality of the entering class is fabulous, our endowment is recovered. In short, the institution is very strong and there are lots of really good people left. We’re getting back to normal and getting things done.”
Throughout Cassidy’s career at Bryn Mawr College, “getting things done” has entailed a holistic approach that respects and integrates a variety of perspectives. She conjectures that her background as a developmental psychologist informs this point of view.
“Developmental psychologists focus on the whole person,” Cassidy says. “You can’t just study cognitive development because cognitive development is influenced by social development. It’s influenced by one’s context. It’s influenced by one’s experiences. And vice versa.”
One line of Cassidy’s research has focused on how social and psychological influences come together as children learn to figure out their fellow human beings. Funded by a major grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, Cassidy conducted a series of experiments that explored children’s theory of mind, or how children understand the thoughts, beliefs, and desires of others.
“I was especially interested in desire understanding,” Cassidy says. “How does a child learn that just because he or she likes broccoli, it doesn’t mean that a friend will like broccoli, too?”
One finding yielded by Cassidy’s data suggests that children with less developed theories of mind have a greater tendency for physical aggression because their insensitivity to other’s mental states—and, therefore, their ability to appeal verbally to those mental states—prompts them to depend on physical aggression to get their way. Another finding was that siblings tend to have more developed theories of mind than only children—but not if they are twins. Cassidy explains that it is the mismatch between siblings of different ages, in addition to their sheer volume of social interaction, which helps hone their theories of mind.
“If I’m 5, I’m so much better off if I understand that at 3 you don’t understand certain things,” Cassidy says. “I can use that to my advantage, or I can adjust more. This suggests that there’s something about social interaction that is good for helping you develop these skills and that there might be something especially advantageous when that social interaction involves a mind that is less like your own.”
Cassidy’s scholarship has also explored the psychological ramifications of linguistic patterns. Building on research that has revealed correlations between phonology—how words sound—and what they mean, Cassidy set out to discover whether these correlations influenced language comprehension. One of her studies looked at the fact that in English, verbs and nouns are marked by different stress patterns, and the former tend to be shorter than the latter. Even without consciously knowing it, an English speaker would be likely to categorize nonsense words as verbs or nouns according to these patterns. Cassidy’s research concluded that children pick up on these patterns well before they are fluent readers, writers, and speakers. They learn words that conform to patterns more quickly than words that don’t.
In another study, Cassidy looked at how children understand sound patterns that distinguish names by gender. Women’s names, for example, tend to have more sonorant consonants and end in vowels; men’s names tend to be shorter, with hard consonants, and, if they consist of two syllables, are more likely to have the stress on the first syllable. She found that even preschoolers respond to these patterns by assuming that people with names that adhere more strongly to gendered sound patterns will demonstrate traits more stereotypically associated with being male or female. Her data also revealed that the names that are the most phonologically unusual are most likely to cross genders. For example, Robin is more likely to be chosen as a male or female name than Samantha.
“Because everyone likes to think about names, this stuff is fun, but it’s more than just a neat party trick,” Cassidy says. “It gives us real insight about how we begin to form stereotypes even at a young age.”
Integral to Cassidy’s research have been her undergraduate students and advisees, many of whom have contributed to her projects and even co-authored papers with her. Cassidy sees the opportunity for this type of collaboration as a key benefit of the teacher-scholar model, which she espouses as a foundational element of the Bryn Mawr experience.
“When you have faculty who are actively engaged in creating knowledge, it inspires passion and excitement in students,” Cassidy says. “It also improves the kind of teaching we can provide to students. It’s an investment of resources and time, and it’s a commitment on the part of the institution when budgets get tight to give the faculty what they need to do this. But for me, the teacher-scholar model embodied by our faculty is non-negotiable; it’s a fundamental commitment to excellence.”
Although she has had to shift her focus away from her own research since becoming an administrator, Cassidy says she still adopts a developmental framework when she thinks about how to work with people and organizations.
“Everybody comes to a problem or a situation from a different place developmentally,” Cassidy says, “in that they’re entering it from different perspectives, different levels of experience, and through different processes. I think about that a lot in figuring out how to move from here to there. While I’ll always fundamentally think of myself as a member of the faculty, what I’ve enjoyed most about the transition to administration are the opportunities to learn about and think about the whole institution.”
Many of Cassidy’s accomplishments as provost and as interim president attest to her ability to bring a variety of perspectives to bear on the curriculum at Bryn Mawr. She led the development of the popular 360° courses, commonly cited by prospective students as a reason they chose to consider the College. The program gives students the opportunity to study specific themes through a cluster of courses in different disciplines.
“A real strength of the College and of many faculty, myself included, is that we have such strong disciplinary foundations,” Cassidy says. “What I like about the 360° program is that it builds from that. You start within your discipline, but then there’s this very demanding moment for the faculty and for the students where they have to bring the disciplines together. And beyond Bryn Mawr, much of your life involves this multiple-perspective, difficult, complicated problem-solving.”
Cassidy also collaborated with faculty leaders on a comprehensive review of the curriculum that, among other goals, refocused the distribution requirements to emphasize approaches to inquiry rather than specific disciplines. In addition, she led the College’s first foray into blended learning by garnering a grant in 2011 from EDUCAUSE’s Next Generation Learning Challenges Program to explore how the incorporation of online, open-source courseware modules into a traditional, classroom-based course could improve performance in science and math classes. As a result of the success of that endeavor, the College subsequently received an $800,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue building its blended learning courses in the humanities and to cultivate resources for other liberal arts colleges interested in offering similar learning experiences. And last year, the Leadership, Innovation, and Liberal Arts Center officially launched under Cassidy’s leadership as interim president. The Center gives students a comprehensive resource to help them connect their liberal arts studies to varied career paths and graduate pursuits.
True to her developmental psychology roots, however, Cassidy has made sure to consider the College’s heart as well as its mind, and she has spent the past year as a vocal advocate of “bringing more joy to the campus.” She reinstated the beloved tradition of Coffee Hour and instituted a spontaneous series of “pop-up events,” during which the campus community has come together to enjoy everything from playing Skee-Ball to making s’mores to dancing on Merion Green.
These initiatives, said Cassidy last fall, are “about finding the good in what you’re doing and what you’re experiencing.”
“We can get so bogged down in the work, how much we have to do, that we forget how much fun it is to be doing it,” Cassidy added. “Joy is remembering how lucky you are; what a pleasure it is to be able to do your scholarship, if you’re a faculty member; or to study the things you’re interested in; or stay up really late with your friends and talk about solving the world’s problems. What a gift that is.”
Ann Logan ’76, Trustee and Co-Chair of the Leadership Working Group
“The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to elect Kim Cassidy president of Bryn Mawr College—and for good reason. Kim became the ninth president of Bryn Mawr after a thoughtful national search because she embodies many of the qualities Bryn Mawr sought in its next president: a strong intellect, demonstrated leadership skills, and a clear passion for Bryn Mawr and its mission. She is an inspiring role model.
Kim recognizes the challenges facing the College even as she embraces its many attributes, especially the outstanding students and excellent faculty and staff. She has a flexible mind and approach, is open to new ideas, and is unafraid to tackle difficult issues. She is able and willing to pull people together to work on an issue, and she doesn’t feel the need to be thought the smartest person in the room. In other words, she doesn’t let herself get in the way of finding answers and building a consensus.
What I personally admire and enjoy about Kim is her generosity of spirit and mind and her wonderful sense of humor. She approaches each day with joy and equanimity. She is both tough and gentle. She is imposing and impressive but warm and welcoming. She is smart as all get out and humble. I am honored and happy for the chance to know her, work with her, and learn from her.”
Eileen Kavanagh ’75, Trustee and President of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Association
Kim Cassidy brings to the role of president of Bryn Mawr College not only an enjoyment in the everyday details of being at the College and an enthusiasm for its community but also a strong vision for the institution. A true teacher, Kim is an expert both in imparting knowledge and in guiding students to come to their own epiphanies and achievements. At the same time, her curiosity about the processes of learning and pedagogy inspires her to figure out new and better pathways for students to approach their education. A perfect example of this is the birth and evolution of the interdisciplinary 360° program. Kim’s brainchild, this initiative employs a rigorous academic framework and nontraditional classroom experiences to push students to creatively address some of the most pressing issues facing society today.
The success of the 360° program testifies to Kim’s respect for the tradition of liberal arts education, her commitment to curricular innovation, and her skill in higher education administration. These attributes enable her to capitalize on all that the College brings to the table, including our proud history and vital service as a women’s college, our longstanding strength in the STEM fields, and our ability to prepare students for the opportunities—and challenges—of the 21st century. At a time when many question the value and the cost of a liberal arts education, Kim is the perfect champion for Bryn Mawr. She has the know-how to advance the College’s mission, and the inherent warmth, honesty, and integrity to rally the Bryn Mawr community’s confidence in what lies ahead.
Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. ’69, President Emeritus
If you have had occasion to read some of the vast number of books and articles written each year about the parlous state of higher education, you might well wonder why anyone in her right mind would agree now to take on a college or university presidency. Now, let it be said that there are indeed challenges—some very familiar, some new and very interesting—but I think that this has always been the case and probably is true for any job of consequence. Few jobs, however, are as fully engaging, intellectually stimulating, and as much fun as trying to “manage” an institution filled with lively, intelligent, opinionated people of different interests, ages, and points of view.
Kim Cassidy is so well fitted for this task. She knows Bryn Mawr College well, supports its splendid mission, and enjoys and is enjoyed by the people who make it work. Recently she has been deeply involved in thinking with faculty colleagues about how to design an effective 21st-century undergraduate curriculum to best engage student and faculty talent. And, she has had to think hard with the graduate deans about how to manage high quality programs at a time of some important disciplinary change in a small setting. Her own connections, as a student, with Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania; her years as provost working collaboratively with Haverford College; and her knowledge of our culturally rich city prepare her well for the relationships that small institutions must forge to remain attractive to faculty and to undergraduate and graduate students whose interests will range well beyond the resources of a single campus.
Bryn Mawr has always been blessed with a perceptive, supportive alumnae/i body whose critical intelligence and loyalty are a boon for any president. This is, in my view, a really fascinating time to be involved with the many issues that touch higher education. Kim may need the stomach of a goat to deal with the very full plate before her, but she has the support, affection, and good wishes of the full Bryn Mawr community behind her.
David Oxtoby, President of Pomona College and Trustee Emeritus
I have known Kim Cassidy since she joined the faculty in 1993, worked closely with her during her service as provost, and now am delighted to welcome her as a fellow liberal arts college president.
Kim is an articulate and creative leader for Bryn Mawr College and for higher education as a whole. She is an incisive thinker who has always focused on the central issue of student learning first. As an accomplished teacher-scholar herself, she is skilled at building consensus among the faculty for novel initiatives, and she will be able to use those skills in the future throughout the Bryn Mawr community and in higher education more generally.
Kim is ideally positioned to move forward in two areas that are critical for the future of Bryn Mawr College. The first is the challenge of accessibility and affordability of higher education for the increasingly diverse student body of the future; Kim has helped to position Bryn Mawr to be a leader in this effort. The second is the exploitation of technology to enhance the residential liberal arts education for which Bryn Mawr is known; Kim has led this effort and achieved a significant national reputation for Bryn Mawr already. I look forward to her innovative leadership in the years ahead.
Nancy J. Vickers, President Emeritus
When in 2007 I asked Kim Cassidy to take on the challenging job of Bryn Mawr provost, I had already worked with her on several committees. I had seen firsthand her ability to make tough decisions and to work with both faculty and trustees to embrace necessary change. A wonderful colleague (deeply intelligent; fun; hardworking; respectful of, and respected by, her peers), she consistently proposed fresh solutions to old problems. She remains calm, firmly grounded, and optimistic in tough situations. She is a superb listener, recognizing the better idea no matter who brings it to the table. She is always open to rethinking and reworking to achieve the best result.
Kim’s lengthy career at Bryn Mawr—as a beloved and admired professor, as an accomplished scholar, as a leader of her department and of the faculty—informs what I believe to be the greatest strength she brings to the presidency. In sum, she possesses a deep and abiding love of Bryn Mawr; a thorough grasp of its values and culture; an admiration of its past, present, and potential strength; and a delighted fondness for its quirkiness. Her choice to become Bryn Mawr’s ninth president is much less about becoming “a president” per se than it is about being the thoughtful and dedicated steward that her College deserves.
Kim understands and is committed to the unique educational opportunities afforded by residential liberal arts colleges. Thus, while brilliantly navigating the radical changes facing American higher education, she will not only keep up with the times but also keep faith with Bryn Mawr’s enduring values.
Born in Elverson, Pennsylvania, to Elaine and Frank Wright. Cassidy’s parents were both public school teachers who passed on their love of teaching to their daughter.
Becomes first drum major for Twin Valley High School’s marching band. Prior to Cassidy’s selection for this role, the band director led performances. She conjectures that she was selected as much for her height—and the fact she could be easily seen and followed—as for her musical talent. Cassidy’s height distinguishes her at Bryn Mawr as well; at 6’2”, she is the tallest of the College’s presidents.
As a sophomore center, leads Twin Valley High School’s girl’s basketball team to a 30-13 win against visiting Fleetwood. Despite scoring 11 of those points, Cassidy shares the credit for the victory and is quoted in the Reading Eagle saying, “We hustled, we played hard, and we played as a team.” She continued playing basketball as a student at Swarthmore College, and later, as faculty member, provost, and president, she would become an active supporter of athletic life at Bryn Mawr.
Graduates from Twin Valley High School. Cassidy was the first alum of the small, rural school to go to Swarthmore College.
Graduates from Swarthmore College, with distinction in psychology. Cassidy intended to major in English at Swarthmore and also complete pre-med requirements to become a pediatrician. A class with a renowned psychology professor convinced her to change tracks.
Marries Bart Cassidy, an engineer turned environmental lawyer. The two met as juniors at Swarthmore, where they were both in training to be resident advisors. Bart was a civil engineering major with a specialization in environmental engineering.
Begins career as a schoolteacher. Cassidy wanted to have more sustained interactions with children than a typical pediatrician would have, so she earned her teaching certification in elementary school teaching and high school chemistry. She taught kindergarten for one year, fifth grade for three years, and high school science in the summers.
Receives Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Cassidy returned to graduate school to study cognitive psychology and pursue research focused on children’s development.
Joins the Bryn Mawr faculty. Cassidy was attracted to the College because she wanted to teach in a liberal arts college environment that valued both teaching and research.
First son, Ryan Wright Cassidy, is born. “Becoming a mother was one of the most challenging and wonderful things that I have ever done,” Cassidy recalls. Ryan is currently a freshman at Hamilton College in Upstate New York.
Receives award from Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for research on children’s theory of mind. Cassidy studies how children develop their understanding about the thoughts, desires, and beliefs of others.
Second son, Galen Patrick Cassidy, is born. Cassidy says that juggling two children while managing a flourishing academic career was difficult but credits the "equal partnership" she has with Bart for making things easier. "My children and husband remind me what is important in life," she adds.
Received Rosalyn R. Schwartz Lectureship at Bryn Mawr. Endowed by the late Rosalyn "Ronny" Ravitch Schwartz '44, the lectureships were created to help recruit and retain outstanding junior faculty.
Receives major grant from National Institutes of Health for research on how name phonology relates to children’s gender stereotypes.
Becomes chair of the Department of Psychology. Because the department is part of both the division of the natural sciences and the division of the social sciences, issues of how mind, body, and culture interact to shape human experience are central to psychological inquiry at Bryn Mawr.
Receives Mary Patterson McPherson Award for Excellence. One of the highest honors Bryn Mawr bestows, this award recognizes excellence and service to the community.
Becomes provost of Bryn Mawr (and reappointed in 2011). During her tenure as provost, Cassidy led a number of important initiatives, including facilitating the faculty’s curricular renewal process, the development of the interdisciplinary 360° courses, the introduction of new majors reflecting students’ interests, and the advancement of digital initiatives within the classroom.
Receives Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant from Educause to apply blended learning techniques to STEM courses in a liberal arts environment. Under Cassidy’s guidance, the College looked at improving performance in historically difficult, entry-level science and math courses by incorporating the use of online, open-source courseware modules into traditional, classroom-based versions of these courses.
Appointed the 9th president of Bryn Mawr College (appointed as interim president in 2013).