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UC Berkeley’s first female chancellor sets her agenda for the coming year.


UC Berkeley’s first female chancellor sets her agenda for the coming year.

By Casey Cantrell

The honeymoon was a short one for new UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. Two days after Christ formally took the job on July 1, the school newspaper, The Daily Californian, offered her a chilly welcome. “We understand that you have a very good reputation,” wrote the editorial board in an open letter. “But we’re not going to have the wool pulled over our eyes again. When it comes to your chops, we’ll believe it when we see it.”

The letter reflects a campus disillusioned by the previous administration and mired in controversy: a colossal budget deficit of $110 million; a string of sexual harassment cases against professors, coaches, and staff; and a violent protest in February that provoked a national debate over free speech at universities, including a disparaging tweet by President Trump.

Despite the daunting task in front of her, the soft-spoken Christ appears unfazed. After a distinguished teaching career at UC Berkeley, Christ served in several administrative posts, including provost, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, vice chancellor, and executive vice chancellor. Now, she aims to get the school back on course—and says she’s ready to face whatever challenges lie ahead.

Q: Scandal after scandal has dogged the university in recent years. How do you plan to right the ship?

A: The past several years have been challenging for the campus. There have been very public sexual harassment scandals; there have been the violent demonstrations in connection to the Milo Yiannopoulos appearance in February. There are the financial challenges of the campus; there are the leadership transitions. You can feel some sympathy for the students’ sense of cynicism.

I have a lot of work to do with my team in building community. There are certainly challenges to doing that in as large, diffuse, and urban a place as Berkeley; nonetheless, the building of community—the building of trust—is really important. And it has to be an inclusive community that values every group at UC Berkeley. Another thing that’s important is creating a new financial model for the campus. I already started that in my work as the interim executive vice chancellor and provost, and I will certainly continue to do that.

Q: UC Berkeley found itself in the national spotlight after a protest against a speaking event by Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent. How could the university have handled that situation differently?

A: What happened was a paramilitary group—150 strong, more people than we had police—showed up [to disrupt the peaceful protest]. There was no way we could have known to expect that the first time it happened. If we were looking forward in the fall to a speaker like Yiannopoulos, we would prepare very differently. We did face that situation when we were anticipating Ann Coulter’s appearance on campus. We had more than 300 police, and we learned a lot about what kind of resources are needed to ensure somebody’s right to speak.

Q: The incident also launched a debate about free speech on campuses. How does a university like UC Berkeley navigate that issue?

A: First of all, just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean it’s right to say. It’s so important to have a conversation as a community about what the obligations are toward our community, what the protections afforded to free speech are, and what resources you have either as an individual or as a group when someone says something that’s deeply abhorrent. That’s the conversation we have to have on campus, and we really haven’t had it thus far. What I am intending this fall is a kind of free speech year. We’re going to have a lot of opportunities to hear about free speech from experts [and] from different points of view. 

Q: What kind of viewpoints are you thinking about?

A: There’s the classic libertarian view that you have to have the free marketplace of ideas because it’s only by having ideas bang against each other that the truth emerges. Then, you have people who [believe] communities—and particularly universities—have an obligation to protect vulnerable [members of the community]. Those two things are in conflict. That’s why it’s important to have this conversation. I myself believe that once you start compromising on the right of free speech, you wind up creating a situation in which your own rights could be subject to compromise. But I also think that on a campus where we have underrepresented students, we need to support those communities. Sometimes, that’s in tension with the legal protections afforded to free speech.

Q: You have talked a lot about creating a community. How do you plan to involve students in your administration?

A: I intend to be very visible on campus. I will have open hours every week, I will go to student events, and I will form a group that will help me plan out events on free speech. We’ll have fireside chats; one of the first that I am planning will talk about the issue of free speech. I intend to engage students extensively in dialogue.

Q: UC Berkeley is facing a deficit of $110 million. What’s your plan for getting the school out of the red?

A: There’s something I would like to quote: “You cannot cut your way to heaven, but you can spend your way to hell.” I believe the solution to UC Berkeley’s financial challenges has to be new revenues. 

Q: Are you making cuts to the budget?

A: We have already cut administrative staff: We have eliminated two vice chancellorships. The chancellor used to have two assistant chancellors; I now have one. We’ve eliminated about 450 positions since the beginning of 2016. The number will probably be over 500 by the time we finish making cuts. They are all permanent. When you have a structural deficit, that means the deficit is there every year. This demands permanent structural change.

Q: Cal’s athletics programs also face a deficit problem. Will they be subject to any cuts?

A: I think it’s corrosive for any unit on campus to have a deficit year after year after year. That’s been true of athletics. We will need to adjust the budget. That will consist both of new revenues and reductions in expenditure, but it’s too early to say what those reductions will be.

Q: Given all these cuts, how do you ensure the university maintains its quality of education?

A: By what you protect. The way we determine how to make the reductions is to decide what the eligible base will be. We exempted from reductions all instructional positions. We really protected the academic units and imposed significantly larger cuts on administrative units.

Q: You’ve stated before that UC Berkeley contributes to the “public good.” Could you expand on what you mean by that?

A: This is a world in which a bachelor’s degree is seen as a necessity for an economically secure and professionally successful life. Public universities award [a significant majority] of the bachelor’s degrees in the United States. If you believe that education is both an individual and societal good, then public universities are a public good. I was at a donor event, and we showed a film, In This Generation. The theme was the number of moon shots that have profoundly changed our lives. If you believe that biomedical advances are really important to improving quality of life, if you believe that climate change is a serious challenge, if you believe that understanding the human mind is important—I don’t think that there is an area of life that is not affected by the discoveries made at the University of California.

This is the first university to face the Pacific Ocean. It’s the first university to face Asia. I think of UC Berkeley as having these twin goals of access and excellence. It’s as much about a transfer student from Fremont or Stockton as it is about its Nobel Prize winners. It is the democratic dream of social mobility through education. The whole University of California is so extraordinary in its achievement of that goal together with the highest level of intellectual distinction.

Q: You came out of retirement to take this job. Why did you decide to come back to work?

A: I deeply love UC Berkeley. I’m at the time of my life when I’m giving back, and I have wisdom and experience that I think enable me to make some progress on Berkeley’s challenges. And I’m not looking for another job.  When you’re at the end of your career, you can make decisions that are harder. ■

Making of a Chancellor

1970: Carol Christ joins the UC Berkeley faculty as an assistant English professor.

1985–1988: Serves as the chair of the English Department.

1988: Appointed as dean of humanities.

1989: Becomes provost and dean of the College of Letters and Science.

1994: Named vice chancellor and provost. She will later take on the role of executive vice chancellor, becoming the highest-ranking female administrator at the time.

2002: Leaves UC Berkeley to serve as the president of Smith College. During Christ’s tenure, the private university’s endowment nearly doubled from $851 million to $1.56 billion.

2013: Retires from Smith College.

2015: Returns to UC Berkeley as interim executive vice chancellor and provost.

2017: Named the chancellor of UC Berkeley. She is the first woman to serve in that role in the university’s history.

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