Meet Charlotte Borst, the new president of The College of Idaho

The College of Idaho hired its first female president in July. Charlotte Borst is a powerful advocate for liberal arts education and has plans to turn The C of I from a private college often called a “hidden gem” into one with a broader national reputation.
The College of Idaho hired its first female president in July. Charlotte Borst is a powerful advocate for liberal arts education and has plans to turn The C of I from a private college often called a “hidden gem” into one with a broader national reputation.

When College of Idaho President Charlotte Borst moved into her office earlier this year, one of the first things she did was hang historic photos on its walls.

She scoured the school’s archives to find sepia images of women from the school’s early days: teachers who influenced their charges, administrators who kept the “trains” running on time and students who went on to achieve success.

As the Caldwell private college’s first woman president in its nearly 125-year history, she wanted to connect herself to the pioneering women of its past.

One image that hangs prominently is of Mary Allen Callaway. She graduated The College of Idaho in 1897, went on to medical school and returned to establish a successful practice in Boise. Dr. Callaway was ahead of her time. She kept her name after marriage and served two terms in the Idaho Legislature during the 1930s.

“It’s nice to know (these women) were here before me,” Borst says.

It’s also a reminder, she says, of the quality of students the institution has produced — three governors, including Butch Otter; five judges; seven Rhodes Scholars (the most from an Idaho school); Joe Albertson, founder of the Albertsons grocery story chain; “The President’s Vampire” series author Chris Farnsworth; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver R.C. Owens, who co-invented the “alley oop” football pass; and NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor (the latter two were roommates).

It’s an exciting time for The College of Idaho, which will celebrate 125 years in 2016 while preparing for some significant changes to the campus and expanding the school’s reach.

Borst, a historian of medicine and science, author and feminist scholar with a long track record as an administrator, made the cut out of 130 national candidates.

She comes most recently from Whittier College in Whittier, Calif., where she served as the dean of faculty.

She and her husband, Richard Censullo, a physicist who works remotely in the high-tech field, and their English bulldog Humphrey relocated to the president’s house near campus earlier this year and started exploring the Idaho outdoors and making plans for C of I’s next era.

She grew up in Vermont, where her father was a Harvard-trained historian who was an editor for a small publishing company. Her mother was an artist who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. Borst found her passion for history and women’s lives at her local library.

“There was a young person’s biography series, and it had one on every woman scientist,” she says. “Then I went to the adult section and found more there. I thought I would be a doctor or a scientist, but in college it was the history classes that really got me.”

She received her undergraduate degree at Boston University, her master’s at Tufts University in Massachusetts and a second master’s and a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She’s enjoyed a long career in academia, and often she finds herself being the first woman to hold a position.

You get used to it in higher education, she says.

When she made the move from professor to administrator, she went from the University of Alabama at Birmingham to Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., where not only was she the first female department head, she was also the first Episcopalian to lead a department at the Jesuit research university.

“And in 1998, I was the only woman on the faculty,” she says. “The Jesuits were fine, but there were some very conservative Catholics on the faculty, and I had to convince them I wasn’t doing anything on abortion. I write about women’s reproductive history, but that wasn’t the work I was doing.”

Being the first woman is a challenge, not so much because men are difficult, she says. It’s challenging to balance the workload with another unexpected demand.

“I didn’t know how many young women would come talk to me because they finally saw someone who looked like them in authority,” she says. “They wanted to know how I got there. That was when I realized what being something other than a white male in higher education meant. So, what does that mean for our students of color when there is finally a faculty member of color? It was a real learning experience. It’s something I have on my mind, even for this. I know there are students who are looking for somebody that looks like them to reach out to.”

What drew you to this position?

You know, I was at a point where I was happy in Whittier. Then a recruiter approached me and asked me to look at this job. The more I did, the more I saw it was a good fit. I was really interested in its PEAK curriculum. I had heard about it at national meetings, and it really intrigued me. It’s a very innovative way to talk about what “gen-ed” or “lib-ed” is.

What is PEAK?

Normally, you take your required courses, and your electives and classes in your major, the elective system that’s been used since President Eliot at Harvard invented it in 1905. That was an innovation of the prescribed college curriculum, which had been the case up until then. Here, instead of trying to figure out the Chinese menu approach to building a curriculum, we take our four peaks — humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and professional programs — and students must major in one and minor in the other three. So automatically, you get to a depth in a subject that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

What makes you a good administrator?

I think my training as a historian lets me see all the pieces of a puzzle — I’ve found that very useful — and as a historian of science and medicine, I write about what makes a good professional. That’s helped me understand the value of listening and empathy. As I’ve gotten older, my faith has become a bigger part of it and being a parent. I have two children who are now in their late 20s. Raising kids makes you a far different administrator. You learn about patience. You learn how to be efficient with your time.

How do you see liberal arts fitting into the educational mix today?

Liberal arts are always going to be a major part of education — and I say major, not minor. On a practical level, it teaches you how to learn. It gives you critical thinking skills and writing skills. On a deeper level, one of the things we ask in the liberal arts is, ‘What is it that makes us human?’ In an era when we have people screaming at each other on TV and our political debates are just dog and pony shows, we’re not asking that big question. The grand American experiment will not continue if we are unable to understand each other.

What is on your wish list for The College of Idaho?

To grow our reputation both inside and outside of Idaho so that we are recognized as a top 100 liberal arts college nationally. I also want to recruit more students from both Idaho and outside the state.

What do you do to relieve stress?

I like to cook. I’ve been having great fun discovering the amazing Idaho farm stands.

Who or what inspires you?

Our students at The C of I inspire me every day. They are so eager to learn both inside and outside of the classroom. Meanwhile, they are balancing athletics, clubs and jobs. They juggle so much more than I ever did when I was their age.

In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?

The women of the early Christian church. Professor Gail Streete is a scholar of early Christianity who I knew when I was at Rhodes College in Memphis. She wrote on these relatively unknown figures, and her work intrigued me enough to wish I could ask them where they got their courage.

Where do you most like to take out-of-town guests?

To the mountains of Idaho. I love the drive to McCall along the Payette River and the road north into the Sawtooth National Forest out of Mountain Home.

What is on your bedside reading table?

My Kindle reader is beside my bed. It has books on leadership, such as “How College Works” by Daniel F. Chambliss, to mysteries by Sara Paretsky.

What is in your Mp3 player?

All genres of music. Right now, I’m listening to the Dixie Chicks, The Doors, B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Booker T. and the M.G.s and Beethoven’s violin concerto played by Itzhak Perlman.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I have a new one since moving here: any fruit pie from Volcanic Farms.

What motto do you live by?

“This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24.

About The College

of Idaho

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is nestled in Caldwell and draws a student body from around the state, the nation and the world.

13 — The number of presidents to lead The College of Idaho

1,140 — Number of current students

10 — Percentage of international students

70 — Percentage of Idaho students

1/3 — Portion of student body that participates in varsity sports

12:1 — Ratio of students to teachers

45 — The number of years served by the college’s first president, William Judson Boone. At the time, he was the longest-tenured college president in the country.

23 — National individual and team championships captured by C of I athletes since 2011.

1991-2007 — The years the institution was called Albertson College, to honor graduate Joe Albertson, who saved the college financially in 1986.

26 — Number of majors offered at C of I

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