This Woman's Work

This Woman's Work

An interview with Smith College President Carol Christ

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.

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.

"Teaching has given me a lot of
insight into our student body."

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.

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. I'm really struck when I go to lectures, for example, by the broad range of faculty attending. At a big research university, you are likely to get just the faculty members who are in that area at the lecture. So there is more of a commitment, which, to my way of thinking, answers to an ideal sense of the way the academic community should be.

We feel that President Summers should be on our payroll, we are so grateful to him. He has put on the front pages of newspapers, and on the op-ed pages, the issue of women in science in a way that, for all our advocacy efforts, we could not have done as successfully. And I find even now, more than a year after he made the remarks, all I have to do when I speak to a group of alumnae is say the phrase, "a certain gentleman from Harvard," and the room starts laughing. His remarks really have struck a nerve.

Science is the last frontier for women. Women are 45 percent of the workforce, yet they hold just 12 percent of the jobs in science and 9 percent in engineering. Here's a figure that I love to quote: The departments at Smith of chemistry, mathematics, physics, and computer science have more women on their faculty, numerically, than those same four departments at Berkeley--despite the fact that those departments at Berkeley are huge and the ones at Smith are quite small. And that really tells you something about the under-representation of women in the sciences on the faculties of major research universities.

This a critical issue, not only for women; it's a critical issue for our country. Many people have been reading and discussing Tom Friedman's book, The World Is Flat, and the concern that he expresses about the United States falling behind other countries in science and engineering education. If you have such under-representation of half the population in higher education of science and engineering, then of course you're going to fall behind where we need to be in terms of our production of scientists and engineers.

The other issue that really interests me from Larry Summers' remarks is one that has not received the same kind of attention in the press. That is his remark that women are not willing to work an 80-hour week, and this is what these fields demand--that's why women are not represented in them. First, let's look at what an 80-hour week is. That's seven days a week, 11-plus hours a day. I don't know many people, even in very demanding jobs, that work 80-hour weeks, so I thought there was a kind of macho-exaggeration going on in that remark, and one that doesn't serve anybody well in the workplace.

We need to be thinking harder about how we can all lead balanced lives that enable us to pursue multiple goals. We particularly need to think about how we can structure ambitious careers for women, but also for men, that allow the kind of balance that you need to find between the workplace and the needs young children have when you're raising them in your intensive child-raising years.

I find it dismaying that 35 years after the beginning of the feminist revolution of the '70s, we still have articles on the front page of The New York Times about young women at Yale saying, "I think I'll work for a few years and then I'm just going to quit my job and raise my family."

Or you have Larry Summers saying women don't want to work 80-hour weeks. This is backwards thinking about a critical structural issue: How do you imagine the time demands and trajectory of professional careers in a way that accommodates the needs of all human beings to have a family life?

Smith created it to address the under-representation of women in engineering. Women just cannot be as shut out as they currently are from jobs in so critical a field. Obviously, with its size, Smith isn't going to make a huge impact on the numbers, but we hope to both make a statement about women in engineering and also to be educating leaders in engineering.

It's an engineering program but with an important mission. Ours is an engineering science program that educates women to be engineers thinking about engineering in relationship to the humanities, to the social sciences, to the issues of public policy, to the issues of social needs and social goods, to the issues of aesthetics that are also critical for working engineers. We want to educate women to be engineers with a sense of purpose, ethics, responsible action, and social contacts.

We are seeing improvement there. There's a wonderful book called Excellence and Equity in Higher Education [University Press of Virginia, 2005] by Bill Bowen and his research associates. In that book, he takes the elite colleges to task for doing less than they might in extending opportunities to low-income students. One of the things he observes--which I find particularly interesting and certainly reflects my experiences at Smith--is that women's colleges are an exception to this pattern. At Smith, 21 percent of the student body comes from families with incomes lower than $30,000 a year. And 19 percent of the first-year class is the first generation in their families to go to college. That's three times the percentage at other elite colleges and universities.

So Smith in particular--but women's colleges more generally--are having a great deal of success in recruiting a socio-economically diverse student body. At Smith that has included a historic commitment to the Ada Comstock Scholars Program [named for a Smith alumna and former dean who went on to become president of Radcliffe College], for non-traditional-aged students returning to school. When that program was first imagined, its founders thought of women who had left college to get married and raise their children and were thinking of coming back. Now it is much more about non-traditional students of all kinds. Ours is the biggest such program in a women's liberal arts college. I think we're going to find many more varied paths to higher education as well as increasing consciousness of the economic and workplace benefit that higher education provides whenever you enter the world of higher education.

One of the important lessons to learn is exactly what I have been describing--the lesson of broad social and economic inclusiveness. I believe that private colleges should think more like public universities in terms of the student populations. I think that private colleges could also learn important lessons about diversity from public universities. I think that public universities have had more success, perhaps because many of them were founded with a very democratic sense of mission of extending educational benefits to larger segments of the population. They've often had an easier path in incorporating diversity into their sense of institutional mission, whereas private colleges sometimes have more difficult histories in that regard, and have a harder job doing that.

"Private colleges could learn important lessons
about diversity from public universities."

I also think the kind of openness and public accountability that is part of how public universities are required to run is healthy. It's part of being in the public sector--being accountable and having a lot more information about the internal operation of the university subject to public disclosure. Private colleges could do more of that, and it would be healthy for them, too. As for what public universities could learn from private colleges, I think there could be a greater dedication to classroom teaching, and how we do things as effectively as we possibly can in the classroom. Teaching has given me a lot of insight into our student body.

I think the greater nimbleness of private colleges is something that public universities could learn from. I've been pleased with how comparatively easy it is to make decisions, to change course institutionally. And the alumnae loyalty and alumnae engagement is something that public universities could really learn from and profit from.

I think the key is open communication with the mayor, in particular, but also with the other relevant constituencies in the city. Also, developing relationships with the local schools has been very important to me, and it's the most important area of collaboration for Smith. It is closest to our mission and really provides valuable resources to the schools.

There was a kind of negative influence I recall from Berkeley. Berkeley had a very contentious relationship between the university and the city--not healthy for either party. I was committed to learn from those lessons, and I set out to meet people in the community, and to be active on the boards that my position as president of Smith put me on. It was important to get to know the community and to be visible in it.

It's really a historic commitment. Smith's founders really thought about the landscape as one of the pedagogical resources that the college had for its students. I think every institution needs to have a commitment to use resources carefully and wisely. But it also impacts the institutional decisions we make, principally in construction and in energy use. It's the issue of greatest social engagement for our students. I've had more students come to my open hours around issues of sustainability than just about any other issue. I think it's one that young people feel very strongly about at this point.

They sure do. In fact, there is a student campaign going on now where they launched a petition drive to have Smith buy a certain percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as wind power, and then they wanted to actually tax themselves in order to pay for the cost of the energy. I thought that was pretty amazing.

Our alumnae are passionately committed to Smith. We were talking earlier about the difference moving from a big public to a small private; one of the big differences has been commitment of the alumnae body--they really feel passionately about Smith.

One of the things that, to me, is most moving at Smith is a tradition we have the day before commencement. It's called the Ivy Day parade, during which the reunion classes come back and join in this parade. It begins with the oldest classes and ends with the seniors about to graduate the next day, and the parade starts with the 75th reunion class. In fact, one year there was even a woman coming back for her 80th reunion at the age of 102!

You see this parade pass in front of you and it's like a history of the ages and stages of a woman's life. But it's also a history of women in this century. It is enormously moving. I was talking with an alumnae group recently about co-education and one of them said, "I think of what that parade would look like at a Yale or a Harvard, or a Williams or an Amherst. It's not only that half the people in the parade in recent years would be men, but at a certain point the parade would be all men." That was very powerful for me; I had never visualized it myself in those terms.

Yes, I try to play every day. For me, two of the important parts of doing these jobs is, first, to find experiences that are sustaining to you, that feed your energy and your sense of well-being. And for me music has always been that. And the other is that these are the kinds of jobs that you can do every waking hour that you have. But it's critical to not lose touch with who you are as a person, and what your values are. For me these are the experiences that sustain me: Music is important, reading is important, and teaching is important. Letting go of those would mean I'd be letting go of critical pieces of who I am, and I think would make me less of a good leader as a consequence.


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