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Dr. Charlotte G. Borst

History, good fences and Humphrey the bulldog


New artwork has been arriving at the College of Idaho Administration building. Among the pieces are four photographs of C of I icons: Dr. Mary Allen Callaway, who graduated in 1897 and went on to become one of Idaho's finest surgeons; and Carrie Blatchley, Julia Finney, a gradudate from the late 19th century and Carrie Strahorn, considered one of the "founding women" of Caldwell. All would become integral to the early success of the college— and each would each ultimately have campus buildings named in their honor.

Dr. Charlotte Borst will likely join those historic ranks someday: In addition to being C of I's 13th president, she is the 125-year-old university's first female president. (She took office June 23, but a formal inauguration ceremony is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 8 a 1 p.m. in the Jewett Auditorium.) Dr. Borst took some time to talk with Boise Weekly about the significance of serving as C of I's first female president, how to battle anti-intellectualism and the current state of Idaho's only private liberal arts college.

It's important to note up front you're on a very short list of female presidents at Idaho colleges and universities.

I've been "first" a number of times at a few other schools [Borst served as dean of arts and sciences at Union College in New York, provost and vice president at Rhodes College in Tennessee and most recently, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Whittier College in California].

I'm assuming you have no problem with wearing the mantle of role model?

If you do, you don't belong in this seat. It can be a bit daunting. People put their hopes and aspirations in you and look to you for guidance.

Can you talk a bit about the male-to-female ratio at College of Idaho? Can we assume there are more women than men?

Yes, but that's not unusual at all in higher education.

Have you ever dove into the conversation of how higher education's male/female demographic is a more accurate reflection of our nation's population?

It's an interesting conversation to dive into. Let's start with the developmental phase of liberal arts education in our nation: It's a uniquely American model. Interestingly, the Chinese are now interested in it because we produce so many leaders by teaching critical thinking.

Yet we see elements of an anti-intellectual bent in many parts of our nation.

I'm an historian of science by training. And if we were to look back to the 1960s, we would see a good deal of questioning of authority in America—which was all good in terms of fighting for equal rights—but by the early '70s, there was also a backlash against science, which later morphed into a form of anti-intellectualism.

Do you think fear and/or ignorance fans that flame?

Sociologists tell us a professional is somebody with distinct knowledge, and American history points to profound doubting of an elite group that might have some kind of special knowledge.

I think many of us would agree some skepticism is healthy, but doubting science and intellectualism makes little sense in our evolution.

I came to be a historian because I love science. I don't think it provides all the answers, but I have no doubt science provides a way of thinking that is clear and rational.

You've spent a fair amount of your career bringing some light into that darkness. I'm particularly fascinated by your scholarship and writing about our health care systems in America. And now, here you are in Idaho where the health care gap between the haves and have-nots is quite tangible.

I have my own private opinions—particularly about health care—that I won't share with you. I grew up in Vermont where Robert Frost wrote, "Good fences make good neighbors." My parents were rather progressive, yet they were great friends with very well known Republicans. I grew up in a family that had a true sense that being rational and open was the most important piece of learning. Most evenings, at dinner time, my parents would expect me and my three siblings to talk about the issues of the day. My father, a graduate of Harvard, loved rare books and antiques and was an editor for a small publishing company. Mom was an artist, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.

What a rich environment to grow up in.

It was a bit nerdy, but we learned to talk with one another and not scream past one another.

Speaking of which, our nation is about to enter another significant political cycle.

I've always learned more by sitting down, shutting up and listening, and I lived in some fascinating places: Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Whittier, Calif., the home of Richard Nixon.

How are you getting up to speed on Idaho?

I've been listening. I spent some great time with [former Idaho Gov.] Cecil Andrus, a remarkable man. And Gov. [C.L. "Butch"] Otter and I had a great conversation, talking about his days here at the college.

When you were hired, did college trustees give you an indication of what they were looking for?

They were looking for somebody to take them to the next level.

How did you interpret that?

To get Idaho's hidden gem to be recognized as the national gem it truly is. We're in the top 200 schools in the nation.

Does C of I have a five- or 10-year plan?

Our current strategic plan ends in 2016. My task is to bring some new strategic thinking. What I think we need is to map out a way to grow the college.


The student body. We have the capacity to do it.

Wouldn't you need more dormitory space?

That's the one thing we would need.

That's not cheap.

But there are ways to finance that.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask about a photograph I saw of you and your husband with a fine-looking English bulldog.

That's Humphrey. He just turned 4. He'll have his own blog and Twitter account.

Presuming you and Humphrey walk the campus, that's a pretty great icebreaker when meeting a new student.

And he's so loveable. He's game for just about anything.