In Memoriam : President Emeritus Alice Ilchman
Dr. Alice Stone Ilchman, who served as the eighth president of Sarah Lawrence College from 1981 to 1998, died on August 11 from complications arising from pancreatic cancer. Throughout her long and varied career in academia, government and philanthropy, she was respected and admired for her leadership, her commitment to her ideals and her ability to build bridges and bring together diverse constituencies to collaborate towards common goals. She was 71 years old.
Ilchman’s 17 years of service made her the longest-serving president in Sarah Lawrence College’s history-and she had, not surprisingly, a profound effect on the school. She established two new buildings, 10 new faculty chairs and three new overseas programs; she strengthened the College’s management and finances, and helped us find our place in the global community. In so doing, she advanced the College’s unique approach to education during a time when the liberal arts often appeared to be endangered.
A woman of “persistence, leadership and far-sighted vision,” according to honorary trustee George Adams, Ilchman brought those qualities far beyond the Sarah Lawrence campus. She served on the boards of many organizations, foundations and institutions, including the Committee on Economic Development, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Public Broadcasting Service, the London School of Economics and Save the Children USA.
Clockwise from top left: the Ilchman family-Alice’s parents, her daughter Sarah, husband Warren and son Frederick, 1981; a contemplative moment in the late 1980s; Ilchman at work, early 1980s; singing in the faculty show, 1990; at her farewell gala with faculty members David Bernstein, Charlotte Doyle and Regina Arnold, 1998; on stage, 1984; with a student in Westlands, 1981.
For 13 years, she was a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, chairing its board from 1995 to 2000. Most recently, Ilchman was director of the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowships program of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation which provides internships, mentoring and enriched educational opportunities to promising New York City undergraduates with the goal of increasing their life choices and developing their capacity to make a difference in their own and others’ lives.
As members of the Sarah Lawrence community noted when they came together for an on-campus memorial in September, Ilchman made an enormous difference in the life of the College as well. “Alice Ilchman’s legacy helped shape a vision for the future of Sarah Lawrence that made it easier for all of us to continue to build on the strengths and uniqueness of the College,” said President Michele Myers. “I am grateful personally for her wise counsel and grace.”
Clockwise from top left: Ilchman with Sidney Poitier in 1993; at Commencement, 1982; with students on the Westlands lawn, 1984; introducing daughter Sarah to First Lady Hillary Clinton, mid-1990s. All photos courtesy of the SLC Archives.
Eulogy for Alice Ilchman
Alice and I came to Sarah Lawrence at the same time. She was my boss, she was my mentor, she was my colleague, she was my role model-a tough one-and she was my friend. But Alice was also my student. Alice studied Italian. By the time she came to my class, she had spent a few years in an assortment of beginning and intermediate courses-she had her own interpretation of continuing education. When she approached me about taking my intermediate course, she modestly told me that she was a perennial intermediate. Not bad for someone who had started as a beginner at what we call “a certain age.”
Alice would bounce into the classroom at 9:30 a.m., more alert and energetic than almost anyone in the room. The students watched with awe and affection as the former president of the College, the chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and a personage in every way, subjected herself to the same indignity of learning a new language. She was open, available, often prepared and always game. And then at the end of the class, she would rush off to New York, leaving us in our academic routine, and leaving me with a sense of a much larger world.
Alice may have learned a little Italian syntax and vocabulary from me, and perhaps a couple of ideas about some short modern Italian literary texts, but so much more significant by any measure is what I learned from her. I learned to aspire to optimism, enthusiasm and the energy to realize aspirations. (And I say “aspire” because not all of us-very few of us, probably-are born with her natural doses of these qualities.) I learned always to value hard work and a sense of humor; I learned that it's important to try and leave your ego somewhere else; I learned how fundamental it is to listen, to value the integrity of every individual and the potential of every idea. I learned always to remember the importance of family, community and service.
Many have spoken of Alice as a light-both a candle and a mirror, in the words of her chosen quote from Edith Wharton. I have likened her to a shooting star, whose loss caught us unaware. The loss of her light leaves a void in our moral constellation and in each of us. We can try to fill the void by aspiring to her example, and by consoling each other with infinite fond memories and the unbelievable privilege of having known her.