L. Song Richardson’s mother had her children’s futures planned. “It was always clear to me and my siblings that we were expected to succeed — I would become a concert pianist, or attend Harvard, or become a doctor.”
Her mother got much of her wish. As a child, Richardson — who goes by Song — practiced piano for four to six hours every day, and she became that concert pianist, winning nine major piano competitions, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition. (Her brothers also became musicians). She went to Harvard College, earning her undergraduate degree in psychology before earning her Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.
“My mom is a very, very strong woman,” Richardson says, laughing. “It was important to her that I, as her daughter, be self-sufficient. She wanted to ensure that I would never have to be dependent upon anyone for my survival.”
But after winning that last concerto competition, Richardson stepped away from the piano and struck out on her own path, grateful for the bigger life lesson of music:
“My days as a concert pianist taught me the importance of discipline, of knowing that when you make mistakes — which are inevitable — you have to keep going. It teaches you to be creative,” she says.
She tells this story on a June morning while sitting in her new home — the President’s House — at Colorado College. She, her husband, sculptor Kurt Kieffer, and their two cats, Scratch and Crouton, are adapting to their new life in Colorado Springs after moving from Irvine, California, where Richardson was the dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. On July 1, she became Colorado College’s 14th president.
Richardson is incredibly relatable, humble, and inspiring. While few people become concert pianists, many have played a musical instrument. Even without achieving the success she did, they can appreciate the broader lessons of working hard, never quitting in the middle of an endeavor, and sometimes needing to find a creative way to the end.
When her presidency was announced in December, her video introduction to the CC community included a story about long being paralyzed with fear when she was required to speak in public, and how she overcame that trepidation by learning everything she could about speaking and presentation. Her honesty, warmth, and captivating delivery gave hope to the many viewers with that same fear.
Her authenticity is striking. She uses her own life experience to show students that through dedication and determination, anything can be achieved.
“I never imagined the path my life would take,” she says. “I was someone who was extremely shy. I couldn’t speak in public. You would think I would be about to cry because my voice would shake so much. I would walk sideways because I didn’t want people to look at me. I just never thought that this is where I would end up. I have been so lucky.”
She credits her Korean mother and Black Army officer father with giving their all to provide an environment where she and her siblings would learn to be ambitious. They taught the importance of hard work — and great possibility.
“My parents sacrificed everything for me and my brothers. It’s because of them that my brothers and I had so many incredible opportunities,” she says. “My mom cleaned houses and worked the night shift in a rope factory so that she could be around during the day to take us to music lessons and help us with our studies. She’s embarrassed when I share this story, but I always tell her she shouldn’t be. She makes me proud.”
Richardson wasn’t looking to leave UC Irvine when she was approached about pursuing the CC presidency, but when she started learning about Colorado College, she was struck that the college’s values seemed to match her own: the liberal arts, creativity and innovation, the Block Plan, the way students are encouraged to explore many disciplines and see from many perspectives.
“I love UCI Law,” she says. “Before joining their faculty, I dreamed of being there because they care passionately about teaching. They care passionately about scholarship, about making the world a better place, and about antiracism. I believed that no other school in the country would share these same commitments and values.”
The liberal arts are important to her, because broadly educated students in discussion-based classes can make positive change in a world where snap-judgment polarization plays out on social media, in the news, and in political echo chambers.
“At a liberal arts college, we must be open to new ideas, to people who are different from us, to new experiences, and we must be willing to listen, learn, and communicate with people with whom we may vehemently disagree,” she says. “Developing these skills serves our students well in the constantly changing world in which we live.”
So, she was impressed that those same values were paramount at Colorado College. She read everything she could find, watched videos about the college, and scoured the CC website.
“I’ve learned over the course of these years to recognize the feeling I have when something is right,” she says. “I began to learn about CC and that feeling started. I started to get butterflies in my stomach. My heart rate went up. The more I read and the more I learned about CC, the more excited I became. Everything that I care about, both in my personal life and in my professional life, was reflected in the values of Colorado College.”
Once she met the search committee — comprised of alumni, students, faculty, and staff — her enthusiasm only grew. She saw a community of ambitious, creative, innovative, and strategic risk takers — the community that built and adopted the Block Plan — and one that says, “why not?”
“I’m an optimist and believe that with grit, a willingness to take chances and to make mistakes, and surrounding myself with people who are smarter than I am, we can accomplish anything,” she says. “What attracted me to CC is that we have a community that embodies these qualities.”
As a kick-start to getting to know that community while she was still in California, Richardson conducted 23 Zoom get-acquainted meetings with faculty, staff, and student leaders.
“It was exciting. I felt such optimism about the future of CC. It really confirmed all the aspects of this community that made me want to say ‘yes,’” she says.
She met via Zoom with former acting co-presidents Mike Edmonds and Robert G. Moore regularly for several months before assuming the presidency and will continue to work closely with them on the college’s Cabinet. Edmonds was the first leader of color to serve in the president’s role at CC; Richardson is the first woman of color to be president.
“I find them both remarkable,” Richardson says. “It’s clear that they love and care about CC so much. The fact that they both stepped up at a time when they knew they would have to navigate COVID says so much about them. They’ve been successful, and I feel lucky to continue to work with them.”
Since May, she’s met former presidents Jill Tiefenthaler and Dick Celeste, the CC Board of Trustees — “many are alumni, and I experienced firsthand the intellectual firepower a CC education produces. The level of the conversation we had was tremendous.” And she learned about the Summer Music Festival through Susan Grace, its music director: “It is extraordinary.”
A discussion with Professor Emeritus Glenn Brooks about the creation of the Block Plan was especially impactful, she says.
“It was amazing. I met Glenn and his daughter (Amy Brooks ’82) and we spoke about the Block Plan. He said two things that he wanted me to remember: That the Block Plan wasn’t completely thought out and complete before it began. They said, ‘Let’s just see what happens’; they didn’t know what it would become. And the second thing to remember is that the liberal arts is the core. Remembering this allowed us the freedom to experiment.
“What I’m excited about is working with the CC community to determine what innovations we will make in the next decade. With the liberal arts as our core, what chances, what risks are we willing to take to catapult us into this next decade? We must be willing, at least in my view, to take risks, with a safety net,” she says.
“I expect us to believe that we can do more than anyone imagines we can do. I expect to be challenged all the time. That’s what I love. I expect us to be kind with the people we work with, to be respectful, even as we challenge each other, and to make the best decisions that we can make, and to fail,” she says.
“Because I will fail a lot. Part of the reason for that is because if we aren’t failing, we’re not taking the risks that I think we need to take to figure out the answers to the challenges that we have in higher ed today.”
As a scholar of implicit racial and gender bias, Richardson was especially intrigued that CC started its antiracism work in 2018, before the term “antiracism” was popular, and before the killing of George Floyd shook the nation and the world.
Former president Tiefenthaler initiated the college’s antiracism commitment after an unknown person sent a hateful, racist email attacking campus leaders of color Edmonds, then dean of students and vice president for Student Life, and Rochelle T. Dickey ’83, P’19, then senior associate dean of students. Other hurtful incidents, including racist posts on social media, have occurred at the college over the years. The pain they caused is lasting and deep.
“What happened here happens everywhere all the time,” Richardson says. “Sadly, experiences like these aren’t unique or even surprising. But CC’s response to these events was new and courageous. That’s what caught my attention.”
In her legal career, she represented people on death row, and became a state and federal public defender. Eventually she made her way to teaching criminal law at four universities. Higher education brought all of her interests together; she began using interdisciplinary research in cognitive and social psychology as a way to examine race in the criminal justice system.
Since their arrival in the Springs, she and Kieffer have been getting to know their new community, exploring the Asian markets and Korean restaurants in the area, and enjoying the nearby hiking trails. They’ve already experienced Colorado’s mercurial mountain weather, including snow, hail, thunderstorms, and sunny days.
Kieffer has an art studio at the house, where he works on his contemporary sculpture that incorporates wood, metal, fired clay, and found objects. His most recent pieces, made from aluminum foil, metal, and epoxy resin, “represent the turmoil, anxiety, displacement, and the ultimate resiliency of the human spirit resulting from the global pandemic,”his artist statement says. He worked in the social justice arena in the past, on a program with government and businesses, providing people experiencing homelessness with a path to employment.
“We met in Seattle through mutual friends,” Richardson says. “He’s a real Renaissance man, and I am fortunate to have him in my life. Growing up on a farm, he was always tinkering with machines and coming up with solutions to fix them. Now he works with found objects, metal, clay, and wood, conceives of things in his head, and creates them. He is incredibly innovative and creative about so many things. In fact, some of my most important scholarly works resulted from conversations we had.”
Richardson is thrilled to be starting at CC at this time. “We’ve all just been living in this pandemic, and we are all craving community. This desire to come back and rebuild our community, to re-emerge, this is a special moment.”
She plans to teach — “not in Block 1 or Block 2,” she says — but she’s excited about the possibilities for a class: “Using social psychology as a lens to understand the impact of race on policing. Or a multi-disciplinary class involving theater, arts, and the law to study Shakespeare,” something she has experience in, having represented both Hamlet and Shylock in mock trials while at UCI Law.
As she’s embarking on a new life in Colorado Springs and the presidency at Colorado College, she’s returning, a bit, to her beginnings as well. An upright piano sits by the wall in the living room — the piano she’s had since childhood. “I regret not playing for a while,” she says. “I’ve started to practice again.”
Richardson laughs when she shares that her mother told her something else from her parents’ early years of marriage: “I was conceived in Colorado Springs, at Fort Carson. So, in some ways, I’m coming home.”