Editorial: Carol T. Christ of Smith College served community as well as school

Last modified: Friday, May 24, 2013

When Smith College gathers to send off the class of 2013 Sunday, it will also say farewell to Carol T. Christ, who is completing her tenure as the college’s 10th president. Christ assumed the presidency of Smith in 2002 after a distinguished career as a professor, researcher, head of the English department and top academic administrator at the University of California at Berkeley.

Her 11 years at Smith have been marked by a dynamic strategic planning process, global initiatives to strengthen educational and leadership opportunities for women and an expanded involvement by Smith in its relations with Northampton.

Of the campus leaders in the last 40 years, Carol Christ has been one of the most personally involved with the community and its institutions.

Christ led the college during difficult economic times in our country, downturns that did not spare prestigious or well-endowed colleges and universities.

Under her leadership Smith tackled tough questions about its mission, educational traditions and the challenges posed by a changing higher education landscape.

In 2010 the college announced a multi-year plan to reduce its operating budget. That involved not only staff reductions, but also the decision to sell or demolish 20 buildings it no longer needed. The college also announced it would limit the size of entering classes to 640 students. More than a reaction to recession, the changes aim to maintain the college’s strength in the future.

Christ’s presidency saw completion of major building projects, including renovation and expansion of the Brown Fine Arts Center; the new campus center on Elm Street and the construction of apartments for Ada Comstock Scholars with children. It also brought Ford Hall, home to the college’s Picker Engineering Program as well as the departments of molecular biology, chemistry, biochemistry and computer science.

The campus has a new co-generation facility for power and heat. Away from campus, the Mac­Leish Field Station in Whately specializes in environmental education and research.

Ford Hall, which advanced the college’s commitment to women in the sciences, was not without controversy, as it involved tearing down college-owned apartment buildings and the relocation of businesses along Green Street. The college worked with the community to develop replacement housing and Ford Hall does not dwarf the surrounding neighborhood as some had feared.

Christ talks passionately about Smith’s role in developing women leaders and acts on it. In the last 10 years the student body has become notably more diverse and international.

Christ also pursued global initiatives. The college formed partnerships with Women’s Education Worldwide, an organization of women’s colleges in 20 countries, and with the Women in Public Service Project, in which the State Department and five leading U.S. women’s colleges are training a new generation of women to enter the public sector. The college is also helping plan the academic program for a new liberal arts university for women in Malaysia.

In her inaugural address in 2002, Christ talked of Smith as “a private college with a public conscience.” It is a theme she returned to often during her presidency and one that has shaped her personal commitment and engagement with the business and civic community.

She has been active on the Clarke Schools and Academy of Music boards, has supported the downtown Business Improvement District and the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and initiated discussions that led to the new Regional Tourism Council.

In remarks to community groups she often spoke of the resources available to the public at Smith, encouraging residents to partake of its cultural and educational offerings.

It was an invitation, not a statement of fact, always delivered with warmth and enthusiasm.

Christ’s outreach efforts are getting deserved recognition as she closes out her time here.

Last weekend Worcester Polytechnic Institute gave her an honorary degree to recognize her role as a champion of women’s issues and for promoting colleges and universities as economic and cultural partners in their communities.

Later this month the United Way of Hampshire County will present its Hennessey Award to her for leadership, service and dedication to the community.

And in March the chamber hosted a well-attended gathering for business leaders to acknowledge her work in Northampton.

We join with these organizations and others in thanking Carol Christ for her leadership of the college, her lifetime commitment to education and for being an active member of the community for 11 years.


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