The unexpected chancellor: Carol Christ’s journey to academia’s ‘impossible’ job

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arol Christ wasn’t going to be UC Berkeley’s chancellor.

In 2013, she retired after more than a decade of running Smith College, the prestigious women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, with an enrollment just under 3,000. She went back to the West Coast to do some consulting work, leaving the fundraisers and speeches behind.

Yet on Saturday, Christ became the 11th chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. She takes the helm of a school under siege from all sides. She inherits a deficit of over $100 million, a campus rocked by political crises and a barren administrative cabinet (she’s already started to fill those vacancies). And that’s all on top of managing one of the country’s most complex bureaucracies.

Oh, and she’s also the first woman to fill the position.

“This is not the path I imagined for myself,” Christ said in a recent interview.

The first thing you notice about Christ is her energy. She’ll fire off questions — “What’s your thesis on?” “What would you change about Berkeley?”— before you even get a chance to sit down.

Christ’s former colleagues say she thrives in small groups, and it’s easy to believe them. Christ, originally a New Yorker, easily intermingles professional sound bites with references to literary figures only an English professor would have at hand. University financial models are “intellectually very engaging.” The complexity of the chancellorship is “really interesting.”

Christ, 73, is not only the first female chancellor, but also the oldest chancellor the campus has ever had (not just at the time of appointment, at any time). It’s not immediately clear that she’s hard of hearing although she’s worn a hearing aid for a number of years now, like many people her age. She still plays the viola and piano as much as possible (she’s rather good, colleagues say) and tries to practice every day.

Despite Christ’s years of experience, there’s little that can be done to fully prepare someone to become chancellor. Even former chancellor Robert Birgeneau called the job “impossible” in August 2016.

But of all people, at least Christ knows what’s in store. She served as the campus provost in the late 1990s, and before that was a campus English professor, among other positions. And what Smith College colleagues and staff say about her tenure is that she knows how to handle a tough fiscal situation, and how to avoid negative headlines — a skill former Chancellor Nicholas Dirks lacked.

In general, it is hard to find a critic of her time at the college. Smith staff and faculty laud her financial savvy and open communication, as well as her ability to fundraise. Few, if any, directly negative headlines emerge about Christ, and — save one dustup regarding a new engineering hall — there are few headlines about her administration at all, outside of the local paper.

Christ’s tenure at Smith is a contrast to Dirks, who nearly had a no-confidence vote held against him by Columbia University faculty when he served as an administrator at the university.

“She had to make very hard decisions.”

— Smith College professor of philosophy Jay Garfield

For Christ, a good number of her successes at Smith were financial. A small private liberal arts college like Smith relies far more heavily on private giving than a large public research university like UC Berkeley — a fact that Christ appears to have appreciated. Smith’s endowment grew from $857 million in 2002 when she took office to $1.56 billion when she left in 2013.

Her tenure also coincided with two economic downturns: the dot-com crash of the early 2000s and the Great Recession. During both, Christ oversaw staff cuts but managed to stave off long-term backlash, which colleagues attest to open communication with college staff. After the financial crisis, Smith cut about 60 staff, including about 30 faculty, according to reporting at the time from The Republican, Northampton’s local paper.

“Smith is a stronger institution today because of the clear and purposeful way Carol and the trustees stepped forward with principled leadership in challenging times,” said current Smith College President Kathleen McCartney in a statement.

Notwithstanding these cuts, Smith professor of philosophy Jay Garfield called Christ an “absolutely superb president,” and said she aggressively worked to increase the size of the faculty.

“She had to make very hard decisions,” Garfield said. “The college is in good shape entirely through Carol Christ.”

Christ also immersed herself in tight-knit, small-school culture. Whereas Dirks’ public appearances were relatively infrequent, Christ took to Smith traditions — whether she was marshalling Smith’s “Ivy Day” commencement parade or teaching an undergraduate class, she was often seen on campus.

Each week, Christ held “open hours”, where anyone could talk to her about their concerns, questions or ideas. She said she plans to continue holding these in some form at UC Berkeley. And every fall at Smith, on a particularly nice Massachusetts day, Christ — following the tradition of previous presidents — would cancel classes so that students could enjoy nature. It’s unlikely she’ll bring this tradition with her, she said.

Colleagues also attest that Christ’s commitment to the college went past the parades. Christ stayed on as president a year longer than initially planned even though her husband, former UC Berkeley English professor Paul Alpers, had cancer.

She gave one hundred percent both to her husband and to the college that year,’’ said Marilyn Schuster, who served as provost and dean of the faculty at Smith from 2009-14.

Alpers died May 19, 2013, the day of Christ’s final commencement as president of Smith.

There was one notable controversy during her Smith tenure — that engineering hall. Christ oversaw the implementation of the first engineering program at a women’s college in the United States, but early on, the program lacked modern facilities. So Ford Hall was proposed — a modern, glassy and shiny home for the engineering department. It’s named for its lead donor, the Ford Motor Company.

To construct it, Smith tore down a number of residential houses (which it owned), angering some local residents. While Smith provided accommodation for a handful of displaced residents, there still was some backlash, reported in the magazine Local Buzz. Some complained that the town’s character would be hurt by the new building; its sleek architecture and 140,000 square-feet potentially clashing with the rural northeastern college town.

Regardless, the hall was built by 2009 and earned LEED Gold environmental sustainability certification the next year.

“(Ford Hall) was actually a great triumph,” said Susan Bourque, who also served as provost and dean of the faculty at Smith from 2001-09. “We provided housing for everyone we had to.”

Despite the Ford Hall fiasco, Christ left the campus on good terms. When she stepped down in 2013, the college trustees announced that a new gallery of Smith College Museum of Art would be named the Carol T. Christ Asian Art Gallery.

To this day, Christ is still very close to the school she led for over a decade. Just last month, she flew back to Northampton to eulogize a president of the college who recently died.

“Carol is loyal to Smith and to her sister presidents,” McCartney said in the statement.

So Christ transitions from a school which named an art gallery after her — a school that to this day expresses a deep admiration for her — to an institution where the student body helped ridicule her predecessor out of office with memes.

“There’s just a deep love she has for the institution.”

— Former Smith College provost and dean of the faculty Susan Bourque

Yet she comes nonetheless.

“There’s just a deep love she has for the institution,” Bourque said about Christ’s connection to the campus. “I think that’s the only explanation you can have for why she took on this role.”

Christ herself said she took on the role not only because of her deep knowledge of the school, but also because she is at the end of her career.

“(It) gives me the freedom to make core choices that other chancellors might not be able to do,” she said.

And so the unlikely chancellor comes to an uncertain campus, with the opportunity and conviction to become its most influential leader in decades.

Austin Weinstein covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @austwein.