Smith presidency offers a bully pulpit

To Carol Christ, equity and access are some of the key issues facing American higher education.

As the new president of Smith College, one of the storied "seven sisters" that has remained a women's college, she has a bully pulpit. Even as she transplants herself from funky Berkeley, Calif., to the small campus in Northampton, Mass., she'll be pushing for colleges to bring more gender balance to their faculties, especially in the sciences. And she'll help lead the way in reexamining the spiraling costs and other factors that put higher education out of reach for many families.

Dr. Christ (rhymes with list), says she got a bitter taste of gender bias firsthand when she headed to Yale University for graduate work – after her undergraduate years at Douglass College, a women's school at Rutgers.

"I went from a situation where there were many women faculty, and in which I felt empowered as a woman, and taken seriously, to one in which women were marginal and invisible."

Still, she acknowledges "huge improvements" at Yale and other schools since those days. Now she's reliving that old shift – but in reverse. At the University of California at Berkeley, where she rose to become provost, she wrestled with the chemistry department over gender equity in hiring. Women make up about 20 percent of the Berkeley faculty, but about 50 percent of Smith's, she says. The imbalance is sharper in the sciences.

Women's colleges, she notes, already produce far more graduates who go on to earn PhDs in the sciences than do coeducational schools. And at Smith, there's a relatively new engineering program that she'll continue to nurture. She hopes to leverage the Smith experience to advocate for expanded hiring of women on science faculties nationwide.

Already, it's clear that more women are in the pipeline for academic leadership. "My heart leaps when I see more women [college] presidents," she says. "[Mine] was the first generation of women in academia that really benefited from the women's movement. I want to see that continue."

Pondering the price tag

Another critical issue this budding thought leader wants to weigh in on is the rising cost of higher education as a barrier to equity in society.

"Higher education in America is one of the most successful things this country has ever produced – an array of institutions unlike anything else in the world," Christ says.

But the enthusiasm in her voice tapers off as she speaks of the detrimental effects of the growing cost of college, hyperintense competition for top students, and affirmative action rollbacks in some states. Together, she says, these factors mean higher education will have its hands full in coming years in the effort to keep its doors open to all comers.

One of Christ's first projects at Smith will be to "try to understand more what drives [Smith's] budget figures" and, consequently, its $34,730-per-year price tag. Despite such Olympian heights, the cost of the liberal arts college is on par with other elite New England schools, she notes.

Even so, she says, there is a bit of sticker shock for one who hails from a public university where tuition is a fraction of what her new East Coast neighbors charge.

She adds, too, that the increasingly common financial-aid approach of giving merit scholarships at the expense of need-based aid is "pernicious."

At Smith, 56 percent of the class of 2004 receives need-based college aid, a higher proportion than at many surrounding elite institutions, she says.

"The paradox in higher education is that more money does make things better," she says. "The question is, Where is the right balance point?"

In her 'sponge' phase

Still, Christ is not truly shaking the pillars just yet. "I am in my sponge phase," she says, listening to alumnae, faculty, administrators – and especially students. She's been visiting campus off and on since last spring, winning a standing ovation at her first talk to students in January after her selection became public.

Christ succeeds Ruth Simmons, who left Smith a year ago to become the first African-American president of an Ivy League school – Brown University in Providence, R.I. Christ lauds Dr. Simmons and plans to bolster the programs her predecessor launched.

An English scholar with a PhD in Victorian literature from Yale University, Christ helped build a top English department at Berkeley and also served as provost.

It was there, too, that she watched in shock as affirmative-action policies in admissions were gutted after California voters approved Proposition 209. That 1996 ballot measure prohibited racial preferences and discrimination in the state's public institutions. The drop in underrepre- sented minorities has been "a real loss for that campus," she says.

What a diverse campus helps teach, she says, is that respect is important. It's an issue Christ is pondering in her role not only as president, but as peacemaker.

She plans to parlay her understanding of the value of a diverse campus to boost civility (an issue that Simmons emphasized during her tenure), and to counteract any remaining tensions from last spring, when racist and homophobic graffiti on the Smith campus prompted student demonstrations.

A top priority will be to try to communicate "a more urban sense" of the world to the students.

"It's one of the issues that's really at the front of my plate as we move into the fall," she says. "There was some racial unrest at Smith in the spring, and I'm thinking now about what I'm going to be saying to students at convocation, when I greet the rest of the student body."

Having a successful, diverse community does not mean "you think or feel the same way," Christ says. "There is a place for honest and strong disagreement about issues that are very consequential.... You don't greet disagreement by feeling silenced – or by thinking the person who holds a different opinion from you is a jerk. It means you are respectful – even if you don't agree."

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