Upon hearing the July 30
announcement of Carol Tecla Christ's appointment as Smith's 10th
president, many people quickly offered exuberant support for
the choice. "Thanks for this fabulous news! What a perfect
fit she sounds
"Yay! I'm so excited," said one student posting a message on the Smith Daily Jolt Internet forum. "I thought that it would take much longer for them to find a new president. From what I read about her, she seems like a great person for the job. I hope she has the same spirit and is able to invoke the same responses in us (the students) as Ruth [Simmons] did."
Smith's board of trustees also received kudos for the way it handled the search process. "Congratulations to the board for successfully completing a very difficult task" said one alumna. "We thank you, especially those of us living far, far away!" Another said, "I couldn't be prouder of Smith, this process, and, I trust, our new president. Well managed, all!"
Apparently, many folks riding elevators that day didn't miss the news either. "Just back from Cambridge," reported Smith's media consultant. "Got a big smile when I was at the Charles Hotel and saw their elevator electronic news board flashing 'Smith College Names New President.' "
The media weighed in as well:
"Smith College brought
one of aca-demia's highest-ranking women to the helm last week,
appointing Carol Christ as its 10th president."
"I think Smith is awfully
lucky. She is wonderful to work with, a woman of enormous compassion,
vision and the capacity to attend to details."
"I am absolutely delighted
that Carol has been named Smith's next president. While it is
a great loss to Berkeley, her energy and intellect make her eminently
qualified to lead Smith in the 21st century."
Smith College made news in July when it named one of academia's highest-ranking female administrators as its 10th president. Carol Tecla Christ, 57, succeeds Ruth Simmons, who left Smith after six years to become president of Brown University on July 1.
Christ (rhymes with "mist") is a University of California at Berkeley English professor and Victorian scholar who served as the executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Berkeley from 1994 to 2000 before returning to the classroom to teach English full-time. She will assume her post in June 2002 after she completes her last year of teaching at Berkeley. John Connolly, Smith's acting president, will continue to serve until Christ comes on board. Media Relations Director Laurie Fenlason recently sat down and interviewed Smith's newly appointed president. What follows are some of the highlights of that conversation:
What drew you particularly to Smith?
But on a deeper level, I was moved by a number of values that came across to me as part of Smith's core identity: academic excellence, diversity, access and a sense of public responsibility. I think of Smith as a private college with a public conscience.
I'm very excited by the prospect of bringing to a private college the insights and experiences that I've gained at a public research university. Historically, these two kinds of institutions have had too little to say to one another. I believe that each of them does certain things very well and other things not so well. Public universities have long experience with resource planning and allocation and with diversity, with maintaining a sense of an inclusive community in which everyone is entitled to be there. On the other hand, private colleges, in general, are much better at undergraduate education and academic advising, for example, and at creating a sense of residential community in which people are less likely to feel isolated.
At the same time, I am particularly
intrigued by the prospect of being the leader of a women's institution
at a point when we are assessing the achievements of the women's
movement and the challenges that are still in front of us.
You have said that one of the attractions of coming to Smith is that it is an institution you can "get your arms around." Early on, how do you expect to do that? I hope in the course of the year to get to know all of the faculty individually. I look forward to inviting the community into our home and to meeting community leaders. And of course I want to go to all of the student houses and get to know the students in the context of their residences.
Throughout the course of your administrative career, you have continued to teach. What is your sense of how students see you and of the role you have played in your students' lives? One of the things that has surprised and profoundly gratified me in my teaching career -- because you can never tell how students see you -- is the number of times I've run into students at the supermarket or at a theater who talk to me about something I said years ago that had an important impact on them. I think of myself as an enthusiastic teacher, as someone who loves the material we're studying and tries to convey that passion to others, and as a role model for many students-but I'm constantly surprised when I find out, often much later, the effect that one of my classes has had on a student.
One of the roles of a college president -- unlike, say, that of a corporate CEO -- is to ensure the rigorous educational and intellectual vitality of the institution. How does one characterize -- and foster -- college's or university's intellectual climate? Intellectual climate is the sense of habitual intellectual interaction among faculty and students, the presence that people's intellectual enterprises have in conversation. Berkeley is a very invigorating place in that regard; you'll never be among a group of faculty in which people would not be discussing the most recent arts events, the most recent articles in The New York Review of Books or important new scientific ideas. People's work is very present. Questions that are asked all the time -- just like How are your children? -- are What are you working on? What are you teaching this semester? or What's your idea for that course?
I don't know enough about Smith yet to know what its intellectual climate is like. I know it has a very distinguished faculty, an intensely engaged faculty, and I have every reason to expect the same quality of intellectual engagement that I have come to value so much.
If you were asked to describe how your mind works, what would you say? I'm a very logical thinker. I tend to think in structural ways, in outlines and through main points and such. But also, because I'm a professor of English, I'm very sensitive to texts, to nuances of language, to what people are saying through their rhetoric as well as the content of their messages.
Describe your own experiences of
educating and being educated.
In my last year as a graduate student at Yale, the undergraduate college became coed. People started saying "For the first time, there are women at Yale"-which made us women graduate students feel even more deeply what we had been feeling all along: completely invisible. These were the heady days of the feminist movement of the 1960s. So we'd be in our apartments at night reading Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millett and in our classes in the daytime feeling invisible!
I got a wonderful education at Yale.
At the same time, it was a radicalizing experience for me.When
I got the job offer from Berkeley, I'd never been west of Philadelphia.
I cried all night. I knew that I couldn't turn down the job but
I didn't want to go to California. I had always imagined myself
teaching at a place like Smith! I went to Berkeley filled with
trepidation-and fell in love. I fell in love with the crazy anarchic
individualism, the noisy way in which everyone expresses their
opinions. I found that very liberating. And I fell in love with
the heady intellectual atmosphere of the place, the fact that
there was no subject so obscure that you couldn't find someone
who knew a lot about it. Finally, I fell in love with the students,
who, because Berkeley is a large public university that takes
a third of its upperclassmen from community colleges, come from
every imaginable background and experience-and some that you
What are the most important things
a president does for an institution?
In the context of a demanding career,
how do you make time for yourself?
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