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 universitys Chamber Music Workshop last year that Christ received an invitation for a final interview in Smith Colleges search for a new president. She knew what the invitation implied: she would likely receive an offer during the interview to become Smiths 10th president.
The next day, while rehearsing works by Mozart and Beethoven in another of the music camps 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 Smiths 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 universitys 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. Its listening to others, where they are and where youre going together.
With educational administration, as with musical interaction, You have to realize that its the group dynamic that is important, she says. If you dont respond and adjust within the group, it doesnt 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 presidents 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 hes 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 administratorsChrist includedjoining in.
And she doesnt 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 [presidents] house does feel very private here, she says. Thats one of the surprises. It feels much more like home than I thought it would. We are really enjoying it. Its such a beautiful house.
Taking a stroll in the verdant woods behind her homeanother of her methods of relaxationor along the streets of Northampton is a wholly different experience in this small city than it was in the urban Bay area.
I dont 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 anonymousmuch 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 Christs regional roots. After a childhood in New Jersey, she earned her undergraduate degree from Douglass College, the womens 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 womens issues. During her 31-year career at Berkeley, Christ established a reputation as a champion of womens issues, promoting an increased presence of women in the sciences and diversity. She collaborated with fellow faculty members to create a womens studies major and in the 1970s began the schools first womens literature class.
At Smith, President Christ is acutely awareas she passes each day a line of portraits in College Hall of past Smith presidentsof the historical shoes she has stepped into. Theres 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 theyd 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 Berkeleywhere, she admits euphemistically, the weather is not like it is hereChrist will miss her adopted West Coast home. Saying goodbye to people there was difficult, she says. Shell 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.