Interview with Meredith Woo

We talk about the importance of women-only colleges, academics’ role in policymaking and personal tragedy with the noted political scientist

June 8, 2017
Meredith Woo
Source: Aaron Mahler

Meredith Woo is a political scientist, liberal arts advocate and global leader for women’s education. She has held positions at numerous institutions, including Columbia University and the University of Virginia, and served under Bill Clinton on the Presidential Commission on US-Pacific Trade and Investment Policy. More recently, she was director of the higher education support programme for the Open Society Foundations in London. In May, she took up the role of president of Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts institution in Virginia, in the US.

Where were you born? 
Seoul, South Korea. I left at age 14 to join my father, who was a diplomat, and attended a Spanish Catholic high school in Tokyo. From there, I went on to Bowdoin College, Maine. 

How has this shaped you?
Korea is a country that condensed a good three centuries of Western economic growth into five decades. The determination, ingenuity and sheer grit of the Koreans have shaped my life in the most profound way. They accepted no limitations – but they also had plans for getting around the limitations. 

What were your immediate thoughts when you were offered the position at Sweet Briar College?
The thought of leading Sweet Briar into the future was, at first blush, an utterly improbable one. I am a product of large research universities. But this particular challenge is attractive, and the rewards will be more so. Sweet Briar is a venerable college, one of the 39 women’s colleges left in the US. Women in this country and elsewhere today face a massive conundrum; we have obtained “rights” and “political equality” but social and economic equality still eludes us. There are substantive issues that bedevil us.

What are the benefits of having a women-only institution?
Sweet Briar is one of only two women’s colleges in the US with an engineering programme that is accredited by ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). It delivers fantastic education in engineering in an atmosphere devoid of misogyny and intimidation. 

Do you think that there should be more women-only institutions in the world, including the UK?
Women’s colleges are artefacts of a particular time and place. In the US, they were created to provide women with access to education. The same is true to a limited extent in East Asia. But all over the world women now have access to education, except in the areas that are culturally conservative. Women’s colleges exist today not so much to provide access but to provide a particular learning experience that is empowering and excellent. I think that the UK should have more women-only colleges. 

Universities across Asia have been rising in prominence. Do you think that there will come a time when these institutions will supersede their US and UK counterparts as global higher education superpowers?
Many universities in East Asia are already global superpowers in delivering education in the natural sciences, engineering and, increasingly, in the arts. Social sciences and humanities are a different matter because their premises are culturally determined. As societies in East Asia change almost convulsively, and democratise deeply, their universities will surpass even some of the great ones in the West – but in different ways. I suspect that they will do better in delivering education to the masses and to people desiring lifelong education. It is important to evaluate and judge the universities in East Asia on their own terms, and not on terms set by the West.

You have worked in politics under former US president Bill Clinton. How important are academics in effective policymaking?
There are academics and there are academics. In policymaking, nothing trumps sound evidence and good analysis. In that sense, academic training is important in policymaking. But not all academics have the requisite political experience. I would like to think that I brought some useful understanding of trade and investment in East Asia to the Clinton administration.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
I am a political scientist. The big misconception is that we can predict the political future. Sadly, our record is not very good. 

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
The most memorable was when I first arrived at Bowdoin College. All foreign students had to room with students from Maine. I entered the room at 5am. A student hopped out of the top of the bunk bed, landed before me and asked: “Are you voting for [former US secretary of state] Ed Muskie? If you are not, you can’t enter the room.” I told her that I couldn’t vote for anyone but that I would campaign for him. She let me in.

What advice do you give to your students?
I just tell them that they are great and beautiful, they should do their best – and don’t screw up, please!

What’s your biggest regret?
The biggest regrets in life are the decisions that you made that you wish you could undo. The biggest catastrophe in my life was the loss of my 21-year-old son [in a car accident]. But there was nothing I could have done: it was an accident. Just like that. I can’t undo it, much as I would like to.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I would make it clear that education is consequential for our future and future generations. K-12 [primary and secondary education], higher education, and ministers of education and leaders of the world must come together and affirm that education must be the world’s greatest priority, along with health and housing.


Rick Rylance has been appointed dean of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Professor Rylance, who is already director of the SAS’ Institute of English Studies, will succeed Roger Kain, who has led the SAS for the past seven years. Professor Rylance will also take up the position of pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of London. Before joining the IES, he was chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and chair of the Research Councils UK executive group. “SAS is central not only to the academic mission of the University of London, but also to the humanities across the UK in what inevitably will be testing times,” Professor Rylance said. “The school will continue to be a powerful voice for the country’s spectacular achievements in the humanities and the value they bring to our national and inter­national lives.”

Lorna Fox O’Mahony has been announced as deputy vice-chancellor (designate) of the University of Essex. Professor Fox O’Mahony, currently executive dean for the humanities at the institution, will take up her role in January 2018. In the role, she will support the vice-chancellor in the development of Essex’s strategic plan for 2019‑25. “I am looking forward to talking with members across our community about how we can go forward to build on our achievements, to develop our mission into new areas, and to deepen our existing strengths,” ­Professor Fox O’Mahony said.

Award-winning product designer Kevin Jenkins has been appointed programme leader of Plymouth College of Art’s new product design and innovation degree.

The University of Law has named new directors of campuses in London and Bristol as it continues to strengthen its offering in legal education. Jill Howell-Williams and Sandie Gaines have been appointed centre directors of ULaw’s London Moorgate and Bloomsbury centres, respectively, while Zoe King will lead in the same capacity in Bristol.

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