Carol Christ on her first year as UC Berkeley’s chancellor

The Bridge — A series of interviews with figures associated with Berkeley

Carol Christ
Phillip Downey/File
Chancellor Carol Christ discussed returning to campus in the fall in an Instagram Live event Tuesday. Christ added that social distancing policies will be contingent on public health guidelines, but she does expect there to be a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for all students.

UC Berkeley seems to have always had an uncanny way of gracing national headlines. Over the years, the student body and faculty have proved they’re pros at standing up for the causes they believe in, no matter how daunting or complex the issues may be. As we head into summer and reflect on the happenings of the past two semesters, it’s clear that this year has been no different: Tough policy decisions and political controversies stoked campus commotion, garnering UC Berkeley even more headlines than usual.

But there has been one key change: In March 2017, UC Berkeley inaugurated Carol Christ as its 11th chancellor. Christ looks perfect on paper: She is deeply connected to UC Berkeley, possesses robust experience as a university leader, is well-liked by those who surround her and is in the culminating phase of her accomplished career.

Even despite these ideal characteristics, Christ stepped into the role just as campus got caught in a crossfire hurricane: With numerous controversies, including budget issues, the student housing dilemma, and the debate over real estate uses, the position of chancellor looked grim, no matter how qualified the incoming candidate was.

Her first year has been tumultuous, to say the least, in large part because of the free speech debacle. In regard to scheduled appearances of Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, whose previous visit had triggered violent protests, Christ argues that campus “has navigated both of those events successfully.” But people still feel very upset with the reality of the matter. While many students are upset with large sums of money being allocated to possibly superfluous security measures, others refuse to condone the “free speech” Christ is working so hard to protect — arguing instead that it is in fact “hate speech.”  

Christ has just about completed her first full academic year as leader of UC Berkeley. We often take the time to discuss Christ’s political platforms and policy decisions, but there is value in learning about the more human side of her, too. We sat down with her to see what she took away from her experience this past year and to learn about the unique insights she has acquired over the course of her career.

The Daily Californian: Can you speak to one moment, encounter or experience in your career that stands out in your memory as being particularly meaningful?

Carol Christ: One story that was important in my realization of what it meant to begin an administrative career as opposed to a faculty career … My son, who was 7 at the time, asked, “Mom, because you’re the chairman of the English department, is your chair bigger than everybody else’s?” And then I realized it was! It was, in fact, a slightly raised, higher chair … and it’s been a profound metaphor that I’ve returned to often in my career that, when you have a position of authority, even if you don’t feel like someone with very much authority, you are perceived as someone in a different position than the people who were formerly your colleagues.

DC: You have been connected to this school for a very long time, which gives you unique insights as chancellor, especially because you’ve spent time here, gone elsewhere and come back. Can you reflect on your thoughts and opinions of UC Berkeley when you were part of the faculty in the 1970s and then juxtapose those thoughts to your opinions on the same matters now?

CC: When I came here, I had never been west of Philadelphia. California was really a new and exotic place for me. I came to campus in 1970, which was the end of the Haight-Ashbury, flower children, “hippie” period in Berkeley … and I found it enormously liberating. … It enabled me to think, “Yes, I have the ability to do whatever I want to do.” This is an enormously liberating place to be. So that was the first thing that was exciting to me about Berkeley.

The second thing took me a number of years to realize, and it’s one of the things I came to value about this campus. … If there any subject in the universe about which you’re curious, you can find a faculty member that’s not only really knows about that subject but is really pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

The campus is very, very different now than it was in 1970. First of all, it’s a lot bigger, but it was also much less diverse, so it was a white-majority campus, something like 70-odd percent. Now it’s a white-minority campus. The diversity of the campus has changed dramatically in the now-45 years that I’ve been associated with the school. So that’s a huge change.

I think that now we are aware of diversity, not just in a racial, ethnic sense, but also in terms of all categories of identity: sexual identity, sexual preference, disability. That’s all changed tremendously.

DC: How have your ideas and insights changed in the 15 years you’ve been away from Berkeley? What have you brought back with you?

CC: I was at Smith for 11 years as president, and I used to joke about the Smith bubble, where there’s this (sense of feeling that) “this is the best of all possible worlds; this place is very special.”

But then when I came back to Berkeley, I realized that there was a Berkeley bubble too, and being at Smith enabled me see that more.

DC: You’ve been back on campus for about a year now. How have your ideas and understanding of UC Berkeley changed in the last year?

CC: I think that the thing that has changed the most dramatically for me is my sense of how the free speech controversy is felt as a kind of wound. I have a much more appreciation for the complexity for the way in which the Berkeley community experiences the free speech controversy.

DC: In a previous article, the following was written: “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.” Can you expand on what are you going to do with the freedom?

CC: There are … a number of difficult policy decisions that have to be made. We’re in a challenging budget situation which, in order to decide to do things, you have to decide not to do some things. That means the freedom to make challenging financial decisions that I think are in the best interest of the university and the freedom to make challenging real estate decisions that I think are best for the university.

One of the things that I recognized is that student housing has become a real crisis on this campus, and I felt the university needed someone who was going to say, “This is incredibly our high priority, and we’re not going to be immediately deflected from building lots of housing just because we have some political opposition to the use of assigned lots.”

DC: In a sense, the freedom that comes with the fact that you’re at this particular point in your career allows you to operate in an uninhibited way. It also might mean that you’re here to take a bullet for the sake of UC Berkeley’s well-being. Knowing that you might have to make exceedingly difficult or controversial decisions –– perhaps even at the cost of your own reputation­ ­–– what made the position so appealing to you?

CC: I deeply love Berkeley. It made me who I am. I came here when I was a very young assistant professor, and it just changed the way in which I saw the world. I am profoundly grateful to Berkeley because of everything it’s given me; it’s made me the leader I am. When you get to my stage in life, you think, it’s time to start giving back. And so, this is a time for me to be giving back to this institution that I love so much, that has given me so much, and I believe in it so strongly.

DC: If you could give any piece of advice to the current student body of UC Berkeley, what would it be?

CC: Don’t be afraid to take risk. Don’t be afraid to change your mind if what you’ve chosen to do doesn’t work out in quite the right way that you wanted it to. … Your path will really surprise you: A networking conversation, or a summer internship, or even a course that you took to fill out your schedule, or a study abroad experience can lead you in a very unexpected direction. So it’s to take risks and not be afraid to take another path … and to take opportunities as they present themselves.

Contact Jacqueline Moran at [email protected]