Kerry Walk is new enough to Manhattan to still be amazed by the little things.
Recently, for instance, she found herself needing to run two errands: repair some shoes and fix a broken clock. She braced for some serious schlepping.
Instead, she walked out of her apartment, turned the corner, and found a single store that repaired clocks and shoes. “It was amazing,” said Walk, who July 1 was named president of Marymount Manhattan, a small liberal arts college on the Upper East Side. “There’s a strong feeling of neighborliness here, which I have to tell you surprised me.”
Expect to see a lot more of Walk in the neighborhood. In part, that’s because she lives above her job, on the Marymount campus on E. 71st Street. When we met in her wood-paneled office on a Wednesday afternoon, she was battling a possible cold, made worse by a regular meeting with Marymount’s auditors, who had just left.
But it’s also because this Pittsburgh native and first-time New Yorker has embarked on something of a welcome tour of the city, meeting with other educators and cultural leaders in the neighborhood and throughout her new adopted hometown. On Oct. 23, Walk will be officially welcomed to the city, at an inauguration ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Her mission for Marymount, she says, is to more fully integrate the college into the city, beefing up what she says as a unique selling point for a small college in the heart of Manhattan. “The number one thing we will be looking to do is figuring out how to embed ourselves more clearly in New York,” she said. “It’s why you go to college at Marymount Manhattan. When students are doing a presentation about a work of art, they do it standing in the Metropolitan Museum.”
Walk is something of an unusual fit for Marymount. While her academic credentials are clear – she most recently was provost of Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles after stints at Harvard, Princeton, and Pitzer College – she’s a non-Catholic at a college where five of the last eight presidents have been nuns. (The school was founded by a convent in Tarrytown.)
Now, this 54-year-old Berkeley PhD, who built and directed the acclaimed Princeton Writing Program, finds herself leading a college of 1,700 students, more than a quarter of whom come from families eligible for government Pell grants.
Her challenge is to differentiate Marymount in a city ringed by globally known universities, and to do it at a time when the liberal arts themselves are under assault.
“We are going to be thinking very hard about what kind of college we want to be,” she said. “How do we want to be known?
Her initial thought, after a couple of months on the job, is to fully embrace what makes Marymount unique, which is simply the fact that it is the only small, sectarian liberal arts school on the island of Manhattan.
That, she says, translates into a different kind of student body, compared to other liberal arts schools in more traditional settings. “They’re not interested in a stereotypical college experience, with a football team and the partying,” she said. “They’re very focused. They have their eye on professional experience and what’s beyond college.”