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Carol Christ: Smith's 10th President Has Arrived

By Eric Sean Weld

From a pay phone in the lobby of a dormitory at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, Carol Christ took a call that would change her life.

It was while she was participating as a violist in the university’s Chamber Music Workshop last year that Christ received an invitation for a final interview in Smith College’s search for a new president. She knew what the invitation implied: she would likely receive an offer during the interview to become Smith’s 10th president.

The next day, while rehearsing works by Mozart and Beethoven in another of the music camp’s chamber groups, she found it difficult to concentrate, knowing that her situation might soon be dramatically altered.

Several weeks into her presidency, Christ says of that phone call, “It was a very difficult circumstance and a very funny one too because I felt that it would be inappropriate to tell anyone that anything had changed for me. I was just there to play music with people. But it was enormously exciting. And because I had spent so many years at [the University of California at] Berkeley, it was unsettling as well.”

In July 2001, Christ received the offer, as expected, to become Smith’s top administrator. She had served in senior administrative posts at Berkeley from 1994 until 2000, when she left her position as executive vice chancellor and provost, the university’s chief academic officer, to return to the faculty. For most of her Berkeley years, Christ served as a professor of English, and she spent her final year there, 2001-02, teaching courses on Victorian literature.

After a 4,000-mile cross-country drive (a story in itself) with her husband, Paul Alpers, she officially began her Smith presidency on June 3 of this year.

In some ways, a chamber music camp was an appropriate setting in which to receive the invitation that would result in her new position. Music has always played a significant part in her life and has pertinent connections in her approach to college administration.

“Music is very important to me,” says Christ, who was a member of a string quartet in Berkeley for 10 years and has played the piano since childhood. “I love the interplay among musicians and the way in which each member of a group has to listen and adjust to others. My view of leadership is somewhat related to chamber music: how intensely responsive you have to be to other players. It’s listening to others, where they are and where you’re going together.”
With educational administration, as with musical interaction, “You have to realize that it’s the group dynamic that is important,” she says. “If you don’t respond and adjust within the group, it doesn’t work.”

Her music also provides an essential outlet for relaxation amid the daily pressures of life in the spotlight. Her daily routine includes practice on her viola every morning, before she begins work, and piano practice in the evening.
Within weeks of her arrival at Smith, Christ arranged a musical fête at the president’s residence in honor of John Connolly, who in June completed his one-year stint as acting president.

“I wanted to give some sort of celebration for John Connolly, and I knew he had been fêted and honored, but I wanted to say thank you,” Christ says. “And someone tipped me off that he’s a wonderful singer.” So she arranged an evening sing-along with Clifton J. Noble Jr., an accompanist in the music department, on the piano, with Connolly providing occasional vocals and other Smith administrators—Christ included—joining in.
And she doesn’t rule out performing with the Smith College Orchestra.

Since relocating from the West Coast to the Northeast, Christ has had to make a few adjustments in addition to resigning from her string quartet. Taking up residence at 8 Paradise Road was a decided departure from her former living arrangements in Berkeley, where Christ and Alpers still own a home. Her new home in the middle of the Smith campus cannot provide the level of privacy she had in Berkeley, though “the [president’s] house does feel very private here,” she says. “That’s one of the surprises. It feels much more like home than I thought it would. We are really enjoying it. It’s such a beautiful house.”

Taking a stroll in the verdant woods behind her home—another of her methods of relaxation—or along the streets of Northampton is a wholly different experience in this small city than it was in the urban Bay area.

“I don’t consider myself a celebrity at all,” she emphasizes, “but I think one of the biggest contrasts between life at Berkeley and life here is that when I take a walk in Northampton, people come up to me and recognize me. There are very few situations when I feel anonymous—much different from Berkeley. But it feels wonderful to come to a community that has a human scale to it.”

Moving east is actually a return to Christ’s regional roots. After a childhood in New Jersey, she earned her undergraduate degree from Douglass College, the women’s college of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and graduate degrees at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

“This feels like completing a circle,” she says, “while at the same time moving to a more challenging level. At Smith, I will be able to give my full attention to women’s issues.” During her 31-year career at Berkeley, Christ established a reputation as a champion of women’s issues, promoting an increased presence of women in the sciences and diversity. She collaborated with fellow faculty members to create a women’s studies major and in the 1970s began the school’s first women’s literature class.

At Smith, President Christ is acutely aware—as she passes each day a line of portraits in College Hall of past Smith presidents—of the historical shoes she has stepped into. “There’s a sense of a continuum of history here,” she says. “I am one in a long line of presidents who have shaped this institution (as I hope to shape it).”

She also recognizes the strong bond among Smith alumnae. In June, when she spent a day in New York City (the place of her birth) at a reception with some 600 alumnae, she was impressed by the feeling of camaraderie among the women. “Everyone there seemed confident that they’d shared the same experience.”

On the job for several months now, President Christ likes what she sees of Smith, its commitment to quality in all aspects of its operation and the positive atmosphere that pervades the campus. “Here, everything is so well done,” she notes. “People here have such pride in their jobs.”

After three decades in Berkeley—where, she admits euphemistically, the weather is “not like it is here”—Christ will miss her adopted West Coast home. “Saying goodbye to people there was difficult,” she says. She’ll especially miss the conversations in her Berkeley kitchen with her daughter, Elizabeth Sklute, a sophomore at Mills College in Oakland, California.

But with each day at Smith, Christ becomes more comfortable and enamored of her new home. “Every day here has its own interests and challenges,” she says. “And every day I discover some new jewel. I am deeply enjoying myself.”

Shortly after her official move into the president’s office on June 3, President Carol Christ was informally welcomed by the Smith community at the annual faculty-staff picnic.

President Christ spoke to newly arrived students and their parents during a welcome-to-Smith orientation presentation.

The Issues on Her Doorstep

Within minutes after they arrived on campus on May 31, following a 4,000-mile road trip from the West Coast, President Carol Christ and her husband, Paul Alpers, watched in awe from the entrance foyer of 8 Paradise Road as a strong thunderstorm blew 25-mile-per-hour winds, and a massive tree branch crashed to the ground a few feet from the front step.

At that moment, they knew they weren’t in Berkeley anymore.

“This was not like California weather,” Christ says of her early impression of Northampton.

Now that Christ is a few months into her new job, the weather has settled down and she recalls her first moments at Smith with amusement. In addition to that fallen tree branch, Christ was welcomed by several issues on her doorstep, though none quite so inauspicious. Here is a snapshot of the items occupying President Christ’s early tenure, along with her comments.

Campus climate. The agreement, negotiated last spring by the Students’ Grassroots Organizing Group and senior administrators, to increase diversity in all sectors of the college and to bring about a campus environment that values diversity, has progressed with discussions about promoting diversity in the college curriculum and in training for employees. Christ, who closely monitored the agreement’s progress last year, says the negotiated initiatives are high on the college’s priority list. “It is important for the college to pursue these initiatives,” she says. “They represent significant changes and commitments -- new programming that better addresses diversity issues. Some of the things that the students requested were in the works already. The document anticipates some further changes, but they will depend on a review beginning this fall. I am committed to continuing to diversify Smith’s student body and have some ideas about how that might be done.”

Science planning. With planning under way for a substantial new science complex, Smith is poised to become one of the leading undergraduate schools in the world for science education. One of President Christ’s first actions here was to initiate the selection process for an architect to design the new engineering building. That, she says, is the first stage of Smith’s long-term science planning project. “The project for the new science complex is not just a project designed to provide more space,” Christ says. “It will create different kinds of space and a different vision of where the sciences are going in the next decades. New areas are emerging, laboratory instruction is changing. Science is becoming increasingly inter- and cross-disciplinary, and there is more collaboration between students and faculty in laboratory research. Smith’s new science complex will help us realize this new vision. I’m also concerned about science education for non-science majors. It’s important for everyone to be scientifically literate in today’s society, because no matter what your profession, you have to be able to understand scientific issues.”

Residential system. Smith’s unique residential system, with 35 individual houses, is one of the most essential aspects of the undergraduate experience here and inspires the most enduring memories for many alumnae. Yet its structure of self-governance in each house, the autonomy afforded the houses and the logistics of maintaining such a system pose their share of challenges, not to mention expense. A review of the housing system is under way this fall. From the outset, President Christ assures, “I don’t think anyone -- and certainly not me -- is thinking of any kind of radical change in the housing system. It’s more a question of whether there is sufficient choice to create the best environment for every student. One suggestion that’s been made is first-year housing, which would enable students to make more friends within their class. There is also a lot of interest in moving some academic programming into residence units -- a sort of residence-centered learning. A traditional version of this would be the French house or the Spanish house; we might have a government house or a foreign affairs house. I want to emphasize, though, that I don’t approach the review of student housing with a set of preconceptions or presuppositions. I’m interested in hearing what people have to say.”

Community relations. Christ emphasizes that she hopes to further strengthen Smith’s ties to its host community -- its schools and institutions and people. She was impressed following a meeting she had early on with Northampton Mayor Mary Clare Higgins, she says, and plans to “pursue the issue of community relations here. I want to build even better communication with the city of Northampton.”

Cost and affordability. As with other educational institutions across the country, Smith is increasingly concerned with the rising costs of tuition and other college-related expenses. A volatile investment market and a desire to foster enrollment at Smith that disregards financial resources add to these rising costs. On the affordability of college education, Christ comments, “It’s one of the issues I’m most interested in exploring. Are there ways of cost containment that don’t compromise Smith’s mission as an institution? Also, financial aid is an issue that will engage a lot of my attention.”

On Wilde and Shaw. In addition to these issues, initiatives and actions, Christ also welcomes the task of teaching a fall senior seminar for English majors on the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw -- a course she taught last year at Berkeley. “They are wonderful to play off against each other as writers,” she says of the legendary playwrights. Teaching has always played an important part in Christ’s career. “I can’t honestly remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher. It’s such a pleasure to get to know the students.” -- ESW

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