November 2013

One Choice at a Time

Karen MacAusland Tidmarsh ’71 on the art of living.

 By Elizabeth Mosier ’84


This Higan cherry tree was planted in memory of Dean Karen Tidmarsh ’71 outside her old office in Taylor Hall. It was dedicated during Reunion 2013 weekend. Photo by Alessandra Manzotti.

We in the Dean’s Office spend a great deal of time talking to students about their time,” Karen MacAusland Tidmarsh ’71 told a Convocation audience in 1991. “It has come to me lately that time management is really the art of living, what it’s all about.”

In her 20 years as dean of the Undergraduate College, Karen spoke a novel’s worth of words at events such as Convocation and Reunion, the gatherings that bookend the academic year and encompass the collegiate journey from the student’s launch to the alumna’s return. Her speeches—recently collected in a volume prepared by Richard Hamilton, Paul Shorey Professor Emeritus of Greek; Jan Trembley ’75; and Harrison Eiteljorg II, director of the Center for the Study of Architecture—are historically significant and personally resonant. They document cultural and curricular change at Bryn Mawr and revolve around the theme of “time and its use and abuse.”  From 1990 through 2010, she revisited this theme again and again and explored how time shapes and motivates us, moves us, measures our experience, and finally is lived one choice at a time.

“The most important things may not have deadlines,” Karen told students on that September day. “It is very easy to spend all of one’s time rushing to meet the next deadline and never finding time for the project, the person, or the thinking that really matters most to you. Set your own priorities, and allow contemplation and relaxation to be among them. Investing 10 hours reading a wonderful book but not finding one hour to think or talk about why it puzzles or impresses you is wrong. All of these trees on this lovely campus are meant to invite students to sit under them and talk or think about what they are learning. They shouldn’t ignore the invitation.”

As dean, Karen regularly accepted invitations—to athletic events, lectures, concerts, curriculum discussions, dinners, and meetings with SGA and student cultural organizations. She juggled meaningful campus involvement in a way that set a standard for her colleagues. Her “deaning” was informed by her multilayered experience with Bryn Mawr students (as an alumna, as an associate director of admissions, and as a professor of English) and was well matched to the College’s goals, which she embraced and advanced.

“I remember as a senior telling some visitors to the campus that I felt I had learned as much or more at Bryn Mawr outside the classroom as in it,” she told parents of undergraduates in 1990, her first year on the job. “And in returning to the College to work, I have gained a stronger and stronger sense of how much of the very unstructured-looking non-academic program is the result of careful design, not accident. … Participating fully and learning to balance different kinds of engagement is what it is all about. This is a demanding community to live in, and we try to offer students a lot of support for the very real and hard challenges it poses. But we also see the growth that it produces, and we are proud of our alumnae who are living rich, satisfying, and much too full lives.”

To take time is to prioritize, Karen always emphasized. Her priorities are evident in the programs she helped to create and sustain, including the College Seminars and Praxis programs, writing support for students, peer tutoring and mentoring, Posse, the Diversity Council, and the Social Justice Partnership Program. And by continually asking students to consider what they wanted to learn and do, she offered context for changes in Bryn Mawr’s curriculum; its movement from highly structured to more broadly focused, inclusive, experiential, and interdisciplinary reflects shifts in institutional priorities inspired by the College’s increasingly diverse population of students.

“The point is we can each experience only a small portion of the possibilities which life offers, and we all yearn to enlarge ourselves,” she said. “The goal of a liberal arts college like Bryn Mawr is to take you intellectually and imaginatively into worlds, points of view you could or will never live—worlds of the past, of fiction, of nature—and allow you to put yourself in a broader perspective.”

To give voice to her vision of what Bryn Mawr is and could be, Karen drew upon the past and the present: her memories of her own college years and first-year students’ hopes and fears, expressed in the letters she solicited from them every summer starting in 1990. Reporting on their responses at Convocation in 1990, she noted wryly: “A large number said they worked best under pressure, and even more cited procrastination as their No. 1 worry about themselves and college. This is of concern to me because these are problems we haven’t encountered in this community before. But we will do our best to help you out.”

Her humor in this speech is characteristic—classic Karen—but it’s strategic, too. Humor helped her coax a community from a class of cussed individualists and to dissolve barriers between students and the administration and faculty. Greeting Bryn Mawr students every new year, she’d disarm and arm them at the same time by saying, for example, “Everyone looks relaxed and refreshed and ready to whip the College back into shape. We who have been feebly minding the store during your absence are happy to have you back.” Or she’d point to our shared values by comically subverting them with a straight face. “To think that so many extraordinary people would come so far to the fifth-worst party school in America is sobering, to say the least.”

Karen made us laugh, and she made us think. She was alma mater to so many of us; her sense of humor revealed a perspective on college life that comes with time and distance—and also the empathy that made her so beloved.

In all those opening ceremonies, Karen talked to us about time as a gift and a burden, as a privilege and a possession, as a turn and an opportunity, as a currency to be traded for the valuable experience of pursuing “larger, less tangible, and more meaningful rewards than marks on a transcript.” In the end, she said, time is an investment to be put to your best use.

“It may seem ivory-tower and elitist to provide all of this for so few students,” she often said in defense of the liberal arts model of education and the joyous life of scholarship, friendship, and service she modeled. “But if you make good use of this education, you may affect thousands.”

As she did. We are so greatly enriched and indelibly marked by the life Karen gave to Bryn Mawr College, to us.

* * *

Time flows on. We are products of our past and chalk up the events of our lives to experience, and yet the future pulls us and influences our sense of identity. In one way, the past and the future are like points in a Newtonian trajectory; we come from one, strain toward the other. But unlike the steady ticking away of the clock, the “lived time” between these two points is nonstandard; in our own lives, time seems to stretch and shrink because time is as we perceive it.

This is why, in a very real way, Karen is gone from Bryn Mawr and yet still here.

Reading through Karen’s speeches conjures her voice that once carried across the cavernous Goodhart Hall or through Thomas Great Hall’s light-filled cathedral: warm and good humored, philosophical and serious. Hearing her words, I am suddenly 20 years younger, a director of Bryn Mawr’s summer writing program at a meeting of new faculty at Karen’s home. My brand-new baby is sleeping peacefully in a carrier nearby as we sit at Karen’s table talking and laughing, enjoying the Asian steak salad and orzo with raisins and carrots she has prepared—food so delicious and seemingly effortless that, later, I will detail the menu in my journal. Karen serves the meal on enameled tin plates with a floral pattern in the center and cobalt trim, all set down on a blue-checkered picnic cloth. In the center of the table is a lantern illuminated by white party lights. Easy. Impossible. That scene comes back to me as I write this essay because like so many of us, I first learned from Karen the art of living well.

Convocations and reunions and memorials: These time-marking ceremonies are valuable symbols that  crystallize certain truths. “Slow down,” I can almost hear Karen say as I sit at her table back then and as I bend my head to read her words now. “There will never be enough time for the things that matter.”

Bryn Mawr Talks: Karen MacAusland Tidmarsh, Undergraduate Dean of Bryn Mawr College (1990–2010), a volume of talks given by Karen Tidmarsh at Bryn Mawr College and elsewhere between 1990 and 2010, was prepared by Richard Hamilton, Paul Shorey Professor Emeritus of Greek; Jan Trembley ’75; and Harrison Eiteljorg II, director of the Center for the Study of Architecture, for distribution at her memorial service at Thomas Great Hall, Bryn Mawr College, on September 28, 2013. The document is available for download at

Karen Tidmarsh '71, 1949-2013

Karen Tidmarsh ’71, 1949-2013

Bryn Mawr Celebrates the Life of Karen MacAusland Tidmarsh ’71

On Saturday, Sept. 28, Bryn Mawr alumnae/i, faculty, staff, and students filled Thomas Great Hall to celebrate the life of Dean Karen MacAusland Tidmarsh ’71, who died at age 63 in her Haverford home on March 2, 2013. Speakers from many different arenas of Tidmarsh’s life shared memories of her as a colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend.

“No matter how we knew Karen, I think we are united by our feeling that Karen embodied so much of what distinguishes Bryn Mawr as an institution and what we value about our experience of studying, learning, teaching, and living in this special community,” said Interim President Kim Cassidy.

President Emeritus Nancy Vickers, who worked with Tidmarsh for 11 of her 20 years as dean, reminisced about how Tidmarsh’s experiences as a student shaped her commitment to serving the College for more than half her life. “To Karen, Bryn Mawr was a precious opportunity, a chance to emerge as a responsible adult having to be taken seriously and treated as an equal by a rare community of staff, faculty, and students,” Vickers said. “Her choice to give back to Bryn Mawr was a chance to afford such precious, transformative experiences to generations of young women.”

Speakers told poignant, inspiring, and humorous stories. They recalled not only Tidmarsh’s accomplishments and influence but also her quirky sense of style, her chronic lateness, and her love of shopping. Judy Fox ’71, who met Tidmarsh during their freshman year, recalled the adventures of “the Denbigh 7,” former dormmates turned lifelong friends. Many of the seven attended the memorial.

“Karen wrote in her final wishes that if anything were to be said about her, it should be, in quotes, ‘whatever you think is true,’” Fox said. “I hope I have honored this. I’m lucky to have been such a close pal for so long, and boy I miss her every single day, as so many of us do, and that is true.”

Before inviting everyone to continue the celebration at a gathering in the Cloisters, President Emeritus Pat McPherson, Ph.D. ’69, closed the service by talking about Tidmarsh’s lasting legacy.

“The gathering here is proof positive of what Karen meant to this College—to alumnae, colleagues, and students of every generation,” McPherson said. “But what those of us who enjoyed and admired her over all these years might not have known was how courageous she was able to be when she faced that wretched and prolonged illness and eventually acknowledged that she was not going to recover. She was always a gifted teacher, and she managed to be one for all of us right to the end.”

Video of the full memorial service can be viewed at