The long goodbye
Carol Christ looks back on her Berkeley career in her last year on campus, as she preps for her next role as president of Smith College


carol christ

Professor of English Carol Christ assumes her new role as president of Smith College in June 2002.
Peg Skorpinski photo

29 August 2001 | Over the last 30 years on campus, Carol Christ made her mark as an outstanding educator and administrator, earning accolades for sharpening Berkeley’s intellectual focus and for her commitment to women’s issues and diversity. An English professor, Christ served as executive vice chancellor and provost — Berkeley's top academic officer — from 1994 to 2000 and from1990 to 1994 as provost of the College of Letters and Science, the campus’s largest college. During her L&S tenure, she was credited with helping build Berkeley’s top-ranked departments in the humanities and sciences.

Following on her success at Berkeley, Christ was named the tenth president of Smith College last month. She begins her presidency in June after teaching one final year on the English faculty, where she is a widely respected scholar in the areas of Victorian literature and women in literature. In a conversation with Berkeleyan writer Lyn Hunter, Christ reminisced about her years at Berkeley and discussed her future as the head of one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges for women.

Looking back on your career at Berkeley, what are your proudest accomplishments?
Getting through the budget crunch of the early 1990s. Though we suffered tremendous cuts to our faculty, staff and resources, I think we were able to maintain a high level of academic quality. Hiring some key deans, improving outreach with the Berkeley Pledge, developing the neuroscience program and bringing the arts departments and programs together in the Consortium for the Arts are other achievements of which I was proud to be a part.

What are you going to miss the most about Berkeley?
The students. We have such a great student body. In any given class, you have students with so many different kinds of experiences, some you can imagine and some you can’t. I will also miss the faculty. If there is any subject you want to investigate, you can bet there is a faculty member here who knows about it. The campus environment is another thing I’ll miss. Our noisy brand of politics combined with our continual striving for excellence is to me the essence of Berkeley.

What experiences did you gain at Berkeley — as one of the few women in a top administrative position — that will help you as a leader at Smith?
I was very lucky to work under three chancellors — Michael Heyman, Chang-Lin Tien and Bob Berdahl — who are all very committed to gender equity and providing leadership opportunities for women. I felt that as a woman I was sometimes more successful at handling situations in which two men sitting across the table might have been ready to put their dukes up. My favorite moments were those in which I led two people, who came into my office convinced their interests were absolutely opposed, to find a way to resolve the issue so that both felt they were part of the solution.

What was it about Smith College that attracted you?
I wanted to go to an institution that I could put my arms around, that I could get to know with the kind of intimacy with which I know Berkeley. I also wanted a leadership position that encompassed what I loved about being a provost: working with faculty, participating in academic planning and interacting with students. What also attracted me were the values Smith shares with Berkeley — diversity, a liberal political culture and academic excellence.

In reaction to your appointment, Haas School of Business Dean Laura Tyson, a Smith alumna, said you “could have been a Smithie.” What is that makes the women of Smith special?
There really isn’t a quintessential Smithie, except that most Smith women seem to have attained great levels of success. Laura is a prime example. The women on Smith’s board also boast a wide range of accomplishments. One rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean and another is the CEO of one of largest advertising firms in world. Smith takes the intellectual aspirations of its students very seriously and expects them to succeed at the highest level.

You’ve spent your career at the leading public university in the country. How will you adjust to the shift to a private university?
There are things that public institutions do quite well, such as meeting the challenges of diversity and careful academic and resource planning. Privates are better at focusing on undergraduate advising and education. I will try to use my experiences at Berkeley to bring the strengths of both these kinds of institutions together to move Smith forward. It will also be great to work with a board that can focus specifically on the college’s mission. Here, everyone shares a general vision, but regents, faculty and administrators get pulled in many different political directions.

What are your thoughts on being on a campus where there are no male students?
I will miss the particular kind of diversity that co-ed campuses have, but there is a very special feeling about all-women schools. I went to one myself (Douglass College in New Jersey), and it really shaped the person I am today. Studies show that the level of professional success of those who graduate from all-women schools is significantly higher than those who graduated from co-ed colleges.

Women’s issues and women’s education are very important to me, and Smith has positioned itself at the forefront of this effort. Smith is creating the first engineering program at an all-women’s school and, in the process, is enhancing all its science programs to give women new opportunities in these male-dominated fields. It’s a wonderful challenge that I look forward to embracing.


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