Rhodes′ New Provost—A Woman Making A Difference

By Rachel Stinson ′08


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Charlotte Borst

From age eight to 14, Charlotte Borst rode her bicycle to the public library and spent many Saturdays sprawled on the floor reading about famous women scientists. When she came home, a formal candlelit dinner awaited her—as well as a seminar conducted by her Harvard-educated father, who was an editor. Every member of the family contributed to the discussion and respected one another’s ideas.

During this time, Borst found she had a passion for science and women’s history, but it wasn’t until college that she learned to integrate the two. After Diana Long, a history of science professor at Boston University, took interest in her, Borst discovered a career path that would ultimately lead her to Rhodes.

Rhodes’ new provost, Borst comes from Union College in Schenectady, NY, where she was dean of arts and sciences. Prior to her appointment at Union, she was chair of the department of history at St. Louis University and associate professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She holds her Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, M.A. from Tufts University and B.A. from Boston University.

Women’s history and the history of science are Borst’s expertise, as her publications illustrate. She is the author of numerous articles and a book, Catching Babies: The Professionalization of Childbirth, 1870-1920, which was published in 1995 by Harvard University Press. She is working on a second book, Choosing the Student Body, about medical-college admissions from 1920-1970.

Borst, who assumed her new title in early July, is excited to be at Rhodes and to return to a Southern city. She is married to Richard Censullo, a blues aficionado she met in a college calculus class (“How romantic is that?”), and the couple’s children are Stefan (20) and Zosia (18).

Borst and her family welcomed the Southern hospitality that showed its cheerful face almost immediately: “When I came here, I fell in love with Memphis. People have brought us banana bread and wine. It’s so wonderful! When we arrived here and people began knocking on the door, my kids were floored.”

Borst’s children attend small liberal-arts colleges, and their mother wholeheartedly supports their decision. At a liberal-arts college, “You are the center of what is supposed to be important,” she says. “One of the reasons I chose to be at a residential liberal-arts college rather than a bigger university is the ability to make a difference.” Throughout her professional career as a historian of medicine, Borst has devoted much of her time to access in education, and to this day, she remains in contact with former students.

But she didn’t always plan on a career in education. For two years, Borst was a lab assistant at Brandeis while Censullo finished his Ph.D. Around that time, “I decided I wasn’t going to make a terrific scientist. And I could have made a decent doctor, but I wanted to be terrific at what I did. There’s a rich world out there, and a part of coming to a liberal-arts college is to sort of open up that world.”

When Borst became a professor, she helped undergraduate students understand the “multiple-lens” idea of seeing the world in more than one light. She explains, “We can look at the facts, but facts don’t speak for themselves. It’s how we construct them.” Similarly, “If you’re going to make decisions later in life, you’re going to be evaluating evidence. There are no simple answers.” And a well-rounded education aids in decision-making.

Now that she is at Rhodes, Borst hopes to improve the number of students studying abroad and to strengthen the connection between community and classroom. She also plans to build up strong programs while firming other areas. The new curriculum is a plus for students “because it’s not based on a sort of smorgasbord approach to learning. It articulates values that our faculty have really decided are important for an undergraduate education, and I’m eager to take that and help develop it.”

Borst emphasizes undergraduate research as “an integral part of what a Rhodes experience ought to be.” To her, another part of that experience is exposure to the fine and performing arts. Her mother was a Rhode Island School of Design-educated painter also involved in theater; Borst says that her mother’s connection with the arts “has been a major reason I passionately believe that fine and performing arts belong in a liberal-arts curriculum.”

To Borst, it’s important for a liberal-arts college not only to teach students but to take them off campus so they can give back; the new provost is eager to fortify the already considerable ties between Rhodes and the community.

“I like the fact that Rhodes has really been working hard on trying to integrate the classroom and the community. I like the emphasis, as President Troutt talks about it, that we’re going to produce students who take learning very seriously but also that we help them to have a heart. That’s sort of the passion of my life, as well, and I think Memphis is an ideal laboratory to be able to do that sort of thing.”

Borst comes from a long line of educators. In addition to her father, her aunt was an English teacher in upstate New York and president of the New York State Council of English Teachers; her grandmother and great-aunt also taught in public schools. Borst may not have dealt with times tables and cafeteria antics, but she certainly continued the family trend: The little girl who once read about women making a difference has become one of those women herself.