Magazine article University Business

This Woman's Work: An Interview with Smith College President Carol Christ

Magazine article University Business

This Woman's Work: An Interview with Smith College President Carol Christ

Article excerpt

NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS, IS A quiet town at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, along the banks of the Connecticut River. It was home to Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker; a political training ground for President Calvin Coolidge, who practiced law and served as mayor there; and the birthplace of cartoon superheroes the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Northampton is also home to Smith College, the largest women's college in the United States. Founded in 1871, Smith is part of the Five College Consortium that promotes the educational and cultural objectives of its member institutions (including Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire colleges, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst) through shared use of resources and facilities, including joint departments and programs, as well as free inter-campus transportation. Smith's many notable graduates have included poet Sylvia Plath, TV chef Julia Child, and former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Today, Smith continues to thrive as a premier women's liberal arts college, with 2,750 students and an endowment over $1 billion. Smith is the first and only women's college in the United States to grant its own undergraduate degrees in engineering. Carol Christ, Smith's 10th president, joined the college in 2002 after serving as provost and later executive vice chancellor of University of California, Berkeley. As president of Smith, she has been an advocate of women's careers, civil discourse, and the expectations of accountability in the academy. Christ recently spoke to University Business about these issues and more.

You came from Berkeley to the more sedate environment here at a private women's college--what was the biggest adjustment for you?

The biggest and most interesting adjustment has been the difference in working in an education environment that understands itself as a single community. When you work in a research university, it's very much like a city. The great advantage of leading a college of Smith's size is that the faculty thinks of itself as a single intellectual community, and they are eager to engage across areas of the curriculum that rarely interact in a much larger place. You also have the advantage of a bully pulpit, the ability to change the direction and shape. You can influence the institution in ways that are much harder to achieve in a big university. I used to think of Berkeley as a huge ocean liner--you could churn and churn, and you'd maybe move it a degree. Smith is very responsive to influence. It's a nimbler, more agile institution that one can move more easily. That's a wonderful thing. It is also sometimes a frustrating thing. A casual comment or even a rumor can have an amazing effect, which doesn't happen in big universities.

So I think the big adjustment has been the adjustment of size in trying to understand the different scale and the resources and vulnerabilities at that different scale. From a strictly business point of view, one of the big differences between having a billion dollar budget and a $160 million budget is that small perturbations in a $160 million budget make a lot more difference. So even though Smith has a more generous resource base than a big state university, by all the measures that we use, small changes make a bigger difference. When you work with a base of $1 billion, you can accommodate a lot more perturbations to the budget.

You mentioned that Smith functions as a single intellectual community, sort of blurring the boundaries across curricular areas. Can you expand on that idea?

One of the ways in which I put the difference to myself is that faculty members in a large research university fundamentally identify with their field. They identify with their department, with the professional associations, and with the kinds of communities of scholars connected intimately to their area of research. Whereas at a liberal arts college like Smith, the faculty's fundamental identification is with the college itself. …

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