Leading Women for the World

Carol Christ made global access to education the cornerstone of her presidency. After 11 years, she leaves behind a campus with a broader international perspective, a more diverse student body and an innovative and responsive curriculum.

by John MacMillan

“I thought I knew all of Smith’s secrets.”

It’s just a few days after Rally Day, in late February, and President Carol Christ is in her College Hall office reliving the moment when the Smith community—students, faculty, staff and alumnae—honored her with the Smith College Medal, one of the most prestigious awards given to Smith women whose work reflects the values of a liberal arts education. Perhaps for the first time in her 11-year tenure at Smith, Christ was taken completely by surprise. “Usually, I have a pretty good idea of everything happening on campus,” she says, “but whoever planned this did a good job of keeping it quiet.”

For Christ, who concludes her term as Smith’s 10th president at the end of June, the honor was among the most meaningful moments of her professional life. During her presidency, Christ often spoke about the power of the Smith community and the role it plays in building what she calls a “sense of agency and advocacy” among graduates. “The medalists are the most vivid representation of the community of alumnae, not only in the present but through the decades, and of the aspirations Smith has for its students,” she says. “The medal meant to me being part of that community and what it represents. It is an incredible honor.”

In awarding Christ the medal, Judith Bronstein Milestone ’66 called her a “national leader in higher education and a woman of and for the world” who pushed Smith to expand its reach beyond the boundaries of the campus and not be beholden to or lulled by “a falsely stable sense of the liberal arts.”

What that meant for Christ was simple: In order for Smith to succeed, it had to respond to the needs of the times and to meet the expectations of students who see themselves competing in a global marketplace.

Christ arrived at Smith in 2002 ready to roll up her sleeves not only to finish some of the initiatives set in motion by her predecessor, Ruth Simmons, but also to develop and implement a vision of her own. In her estimation, Smith needed to be bold, responsive and relevant; right away, she identified a set of priorities. First, she made access to education the cornerstone of her presidency. Then she recognized gaps in the curriculum, noting there was very little structure to how students chose courses outside of their majors. She anticipated what at the time was a nascent trend toward global education and set out to ensure that every student be exposed to a culture different from her own. She consulted faculty and alumnae to develop a list of the most important capacities that women needed to succeed in the world.

From those priorities came the Smith Design for Learning—a strategic plan that is perhaps Christ’s most enduring and wide-ranging achievement and a blueprint for, as Christ notes, “reimagining the liberal arts for the 21st century.” Among the initiatives that grew out of the plan were the development of academic centers, including the Global Studies Center and the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability; the creation of 10 academic concentrations, such as archives and global finance; and partnerships with organizations like CARE and Oxfam America that provide students with internships and opportunities to study such world issues as poverty and human rights.

Though the Design for Learning ushered in a new era of innovation at Smith, Christ didn’t have an easy time implementing it. Her presidency was bookended by two of the country’s most severe economic downturns, resulting in significant losses in endowment earnings. The first, which came on the heels of 9/11 and was coupled with steep rises in health-care and financial-aid costs, forced her to cut more than $7 million from the college’s operating budget. The second set of budget reductions came a few years ago, during the Great Recession, and resulted in more than $20 million in cuts. Both rounds of reductions raised the ire of some faculty and staff, but Christ, who gained significant budget management experience as a provost at the University of California, Berkeley, understood the importance and long-term value of acting decisively to rein in expenses and stabilize the college’s financial health. With every decision, she says, her goals were to preserve the college’s academic excellence and maintain its commitment to affordability.

Today, Smith is financially strong. More than that, it continues to be a compelling option for young women who, thanks to Christ’s vision for access and a globally focused education, graduate prepared to lead on the world stage.

Sadly, in the last year, Christ’s husband, Paul Alpers, whom she met and married while she was at the University of California, Berkeley, was diagnosed with cancer. He died on the evening of May 19, the day of Smith’s 135th Commencement ceremony.

Her husband’s illness was clearly on her mind as she sat down earlier this year for a wide-ranging discussion about her tenure, what leading a women’s college has meant to her and how the liberal arts—and Smith—must grow to remain relevant to young women who have an array of college choices available to them. Excerpts follow.

What are you thinking about as you head into the final few months of your tenure?

The past few months, especially, have been shaped by Paul’s illness, and it’s difficult to separate them from that, but I have been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed. I’ve been reflecting on the presidents who came before me, what they were handed when they arrived and what they did to move Smith forward. It’s been incredibly moving thinking about that history and where I fit in that historical continuity.

In your first address to the Smith community, you named access to education as your top priority. Why was that an important message to give early on?

For me, it’s a core belief. I’ve often said that Smith is a private college with a public conscience, and one of our greatest responsibilities is access. Education is the most important driver of the creative capacity of the population. It is the most important driver in the United States of mobility, one of the keys to our democracy. It is one way to create equity of opportunity. I also firmly believe that socioeconomic diversity makes Smith stronger. Students need to learn how to work with and among people from different backgrounds. What better time to learn that than in those formative years of 18 to 22, when students are imagining themselves as adults separate from their families.

What role do women’s colleges play in the movement toward equity of opportunity?

Women’s colleges, more than any other institutions, make the claim that women can and should aspire to every position of leadership that is available. Everything on a women’s college campus says you are significant and you can make a difference in this world. Being immersed in that kind of environment creates a sense of confidence that is unique among women’s college graduates; they are better prepared to step into leadership positions, and as we’re seeing around the world, when women are educated, their families benefit and their communities benefit.

During your first couple of years, you decided to stay close to campus rather than do a lot of traveling. What did you learn about Smith in that time?

One of the first things I discovered was that Smith feels itself to be a single community, and that the relationships that people have with one another are a powerful force on campus. What astounded me, too, when I first came to Smith was observing how one student’s bad behavior toward another in a house could ignite a campus controversy. That was so inconceivable at a place like Berkeley, where it would have most likely remained a private interaction. I also came to see how committed the faculty is to pedagogy, to always teaching better, to learning new things about teaching. That was new to me and deeply moving.

When you did go on a long listening tour to meet alumnae, what struck you about Smith women?

There were moments that were so powerful to me. They spoke about how Smith expanded their minds and their imaginations and of how Smith gave them the strength to meet unexpected challenges in their lives. I vividly remember one alumna saying to me, “I was a brilliant student at Smith. Then I went to Harvard Business School and I was a brilliant student there as well. Then I went into business and was very successful, and I credit my Smith education for that. Then I had two disabled children, and that was a challenge I never expected and it forced me to change in profound ways, but it was my Smith education that made me feel that I could handle anything that came my way.” It was then that I realized the profound impact Smith has on the lives of alumnae.

Why are women’s colleges still relevant and needed in the world?

If you look at the highest levels of almost every profession, women are still woefully underrepresented in positions of leadership. Only 19 percent of members of the U.S. Congress are women; about 13 percent of jobs in engineering are held by women; women are underrepresented in positions of leadership in science and in positions of leadership in law schools. I still believe that our society has ingrained gender prejudices and preferences, and I believe that as long as those prejudices and preferences still exist, women’s colleges have a very important role to play.

What does the landscape of women’s lives look like now compared to a decade ago?

One issue at the forefront that affects not only women’s lives is the issue of gay rights. Usually, I think the pace of social change is really slow, but this is a case where it has been remarkably fast. What I’ve also noticed is that the life template that I grew up with, which is that you decide what you want to do and then you go do it, doesn’t apply anymore. Opportunities are hard to find because of the job market, but more than that, it’s hard to figure out in that simple narrative way the question of, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” So there’s a period of real searching and some frustration that young women go through when they graduate from college that feels very different from the trajectory that I’m familiar with. Another big difference is that people reinvent themselves so much. Alumnae tell me that they’ve had three or four or five different careers, so the sense of a career is all about flexibility and adaptability and nimbleness in changing what you do.

How have discussions about race and diversity evolved on campus?

I don’t want to minimize the place that black-white relations have in our history and in the dynamic of the United States today, but I think there is more recognition now that there are multiple diversities and multiple challenges in the area of diversity. I have admired our students because I think they have been the real leaders around this issue. They have learned to mobilize—not just to protest but to try to figure out what the community can do to reach both a fuller understanding of and a better way of conducting itself around difference.

What prompted you to develop the Smith Design for Learning, the plan to reimagine a liberal arts education?

The core of Smith is about education, so ultimately the Design for Learning tried to distill what is absolutely central to the core mission of what we do. There are two ideas that are central to the plan. One is the idea of capacities: the animating capacities that a liberal arts education tries to develop (writing, critical thought and analysis); the other is the idea of integration, to provide ways for Smith students to connect what they do in multiple disciplines, particularly as it bears on the complex problems that they’ll spend their time after Smith trying to solve.

Where are we in terms of carrying out the plan?

We’re virtually there. All of the decisions we make about the curriculum are based on the Design for Learning. We’ve revamped the advising system; we’ve created the Centers for Engagement, Learning and Leadership. Smith is much more global; students have many more opportunities to experience a culture different from their own. Thanks to the hard work that went into implementing the plan, the curriculum is more focused and students get a better sense of the depth and breadth of a Smith education.

You’ve been outspoken about the rising costs of higher education. What should be done to keep costs in check?

From the perspective of a private school, we need to do much more collaboration, much more outsourcing of administrative services and we need to develop a different mind-set about program expansion. I also think the federal government should relax its antitrust strictures that prevent colleges from talking about things like financial aid packages and compensation strategies. Doing so would allow us to have much more candid conversations about expenses and how to control them.

As president, you had to deal with two severe economic downturns. How did you think through those difficult budget issues?

Budget issues are complex, and one thing I immediately wanted to do was build in more transparency and understanding of the college’s financial situation to demonstrate that there were trade-offs with every decision we made. So I tried to make everything public, making clear what the college’s larger financial picture was, what we needed to fix, how we were going to do that and what that meant for the institution.

In hindsight are there things that you wish you had been able to accomplish but couldn’t because of the cutbacks?

Nondegree programs are a real opportunity for Smith, and I wish I’d been able to move further with those. There are areas of the curriculum I would have loved to have grown, and I think this will be a challenge for [President-elect] Kathy McCartney—how to give the resources to those areas of the curriculum, like neuroscience and environmental science, that are growing in terms of student interests at the same time we’re in a steady-state budget. I wish I’d had time to get further on the library issues that we have, and to more fully realize the potential in the Five College system.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

I would say the internationalization of the campus. Providing opportunities for women from around the world is
deeply rooted in Smith’s history and a direction that is right for Smith today. Tied to that is the development of the Women in Public Service Project with the U.S. State Department. The launch of that initiative in 2011 with Hillary Clinton was a very proud moment. Then I’d say Ford Hall. When I arrived, we knew we had to house the engineering program, but we didn’t know how we were going to do it. This project took shape
entirely under my presidency.

You’re a lover of music and literature. Have you managed to keep up your reading habits and playing the viola and piano?

I still read a lot. I often have lots of time in airports or in the back of a car. With my music, I used to try to play my viola at least a half hour a day. But since Paul’s illness I haven’t been able to keep that up.

What does retirement look like for you?

I have deliberately not made any concrete plans. I’m going to do some writing; I’m going to reflect; I’m going to spend some time with my music. Beyond that, I haven’t made commitments of any sort. I’m intent on taking time off to allow the next chapter of my life to unfold in a way that feels organic.

Are there particular images from your time at Smith that will stay with you?

There are so many. Rally Day, with seniors in their hats and graduation robes. Ivy Day, with the generations of alumnae dressed all in white and the senior class carrying their roses. The engineers putting on their hard hats when I confer their degrees at graduation. Then there are the more personal images: the New England landscape, the explosive spring and beautiful fall. And the campus itself: Paradise Pond, the beautiful rooflines of the campus at dusk. This truly is a beautiful place to be.

John MacMillan is editorial director of alumnae communications at Smith.

Summer 2013, SAQ