SAN MARINO, Calif.— Karen R. Lawrence, former president of Sarah Lawrence College, has been named president of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, The Huntington's Board of Trustees announced today, following an extensive international search.
Lawrence, who steps into the role Sept. 1, is The Huntington's ninth president. She joins The Huntington following 10 years as president at Sarah Lawrence, a small, highly regarded liberal arts college in Yonkers, NY. Her tenure at Sarah Lawrence began just before the recession of 2008-9; she is credited with weathering that crisis with sound management and unflagging resolve, moving the institution into a period of strong growth and performance as well as increased student body diversity.
"Karen's combination of qualities — her collaborative leadership style, unflappable nature, and strong scholarly background— convinced the search committee that she's absolutely the right person to lead The Huntington at this time, especially as we gear up for our centennial and several major projects ahead," said Loren Rothschild, chair of the institution's Board of Trustees. Among those significant projects are the groundbreaking conservation effort on The Blue Boy, the iconic 18th-century Gainsborough portrait, part of which will take place in public view this fall, as well as the expansion of The Huntington's renowned Chinese Garden, also slated to get underway later this year.
"The Huntington represents so much of what I hold as core values— a humanistic approach that emphasizes curiosity, empathy, and aesthetic appreciation," said Lawrence. "I am thrilled by this extraordinary opportunity, especially given the challenges facing the arts and humanities and the extent to which The Huntington contributes to knowledge making and the exchange of ideas, public enrichment, cultural analysis and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human."
Lawrence is widely credited for her skillful guidance of Sarah Lawrence through the global recession that spelled catastrophe for so many small colleges and nonprofits. She began her tenure there in 2007, and even given the daunting impact of the downturn, "she ultimately raised more than $135 million and landed several of the largest individual gifts ever given to the college," said former Sarah Lawrence board chair John A. Hill, "including a major donation from alumna Barbara Walters toward a transformational new student center, a first for the campus."
She is also credited with substantially enhancing the diversity of the student body, with students of color increasing from 14 percent to 24 percent and the international student population increasing from four percent to 12 percent during her tenure. Under her leadership, the college significantly enhanced financial aid, making the unique Sarah Lawrence education accessible to a wider range of students.
At Sarah Lawrence, she was a popular president, regularly teaching classes on James Joyce, her area of expertise. "Karen ignited a passion in her students for Joyce's beautifully complex novels and short stories," said graduate India Nicholas. Nicholas said she was so inspired by Lawrence's teaching that she traveled overseas expressly to delve deeper into Joyce's Ireland.
Lawrence holds her bachelor's degree in English from Yale University, her M.A. from Tufts University, and her Ph.D. from Columbia University.
Before being named president of Sarah Lawrence, she was dean of humanities and professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine.
She recently was named to the board of the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. She has published widely on Joyce and is perhaps best known for her books The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (Princeton University Press) and Who's Afraid of James Joyce?, published by University Press of Florida. She is married to Peter Lawrence, chief of vascular and endovascular surgery and director of the Gonda Vascular Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
At The Huntington, she will oversee a staff of 500, as well as world-class collections of rare books, manuscripts, and related materials, European and American art, and some 120 acres of botanical gardens, along with a vibrant program of research and education. As a major Southern California cultural destination, the institution hosts more than 750,000 visitors a year to its steady stream of library, art, and botanical exhibitions. It also welcomes more than 1,700 scholars each year to conduct advanced research in the humanities, and provides some $1.85 million in fellowships, as well as hosting more than 20,000 school students and their teachers annually in a wide range of educational activities.
Photo credit: Stefan Radtke