On Dec. 8, 2016, the Smith College administration announced it would close the school’s on-campus equestrian center in Northampton, Mass., and reduce the varsity team to club status at the end of the 2016-2017 school year—ending the college’s 90-year equestrian history. This decision was made without consulting alumnae and donors—even the board of trustees wasn’t informed.
Alumnae responded by creating the Save Smith Equestrian Steering Committee, which is trying to save the program or at least learn more about why the decision was made.
“The fact that the college is willing to be like, ‘Yeah see ya’ to stuff that people have put a lot of time and money and energy into is just appalling,” said 2005 graduate Jess Peláez. “So what we’re trying to do is get a seat at the table with the board of trustees in January. We’re just saying, ‘Look, we can fix. We can find a solution, and we will partner with the administration.’ But we want a seat at the table, so we can figure out what is the true motivation that the college has for doing this. What is it? Is it financial because there’s declining enrollment?”
To 1990 alumna Carla Geiersbach, who just completed the college search with her daughter, the varsity team and on-campus facility are key features that distinguish Smith.
“It’s incredibly hard to find a school of a certain academic rigor that has a serious riding program, especially to have one on-campus,” she said. “So many of us, to be able to go to class, hop on the shuttle down to the barn, get in your team practice or extra weekly ride, and then get back in time for your lab or your other class, was huge. It meant that we could actually be serious students and serious athletes. To give up a resource like that just seems shortsighted.”
The closing of the on-campus equestrian facility—which includes two outdoor rings, an indoor arena and community lounge—affects more than the varsity team. Currently, all students have access to a riding athletics course while enrolled. In addition, the facility houses a community riding program that links the town of Northampton to the collegiate community.
“So it sort of overlaps the town-gown concept and makes relationships kinder and gentler whenever there can be sort of the awkward ‘townies v. college kids’ type thing,” said Geiersbach. “It’s a place where everybody’s just riders.”
“Connection is probably the best word to use because it introduced me to members of the community and kind of burst the little Smith bubble we have going on there,” said Peláez. “The college is up on a hill at the edge of town, so you don’t have to go into town really if you’re a student. But if you’re at the barn though, you meet people from the town and in the community riding programs or just by virtue of horse people talking with other people.
“It’s going to gut the program just because right now, students can take the courses but not be on the varsity team,” she continued. “But if it goes to a club level from a varsity level, it’s going to basically just completely sever that access. And the only people on the team will be the people who’ve been riding their whole life pretty much, who come from families that could afford to do that when they were younger. So it’s really going to make it into a very elitist thing, where right now it’s a pretty level open playing field.”
Dean and Vice President of College Life Donna Lisker responded to the Steering Committee with a letter on Dec. 16 that said it was a strategic decision made by the president and her cabinet and that it was not financially motivated. “We will not be revisiting the decision,” she stated.
Smith College is one of the largest women’s colleges in the United States with about 2,750 undergrads. Currently there are 22 women on the riding team.
While the long term goal is to retain the varsity status and on-campus facility, currently the Steering Committee is asking individuals to share their stories or sign the online petition on savesmithequestrian.com. The petition already has more than 1,200 signatures, a few hundred shy of the 1,500 goal. In addition, people can send letters to the college directly. There is a Jan. 26-27 board of trustees meeting, and the Steering Committee hopes they’ll be invited to participate.