It’s Her Time

New UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ is facing some major challenges. And the university’s first female chancellor might just be the perfect person for the job.


Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley

Sometimes when troubles mount and prospects are bleak, champions emerge and inspire people to rally together and even sacrifice for a common cause. Judging from reactions to new UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, she may be just such a leader. And her timing could not be better.

UC Berkeley is facing some big tests: a $110 million structural deficit that must be eliminated by 2020; a money-losing athletic program saddled with $400 million in debt; reputations tarnished by sexual harassment scandals; lingering bitterness after violent protesters prompted the cancellation of the appearance of a controversial figure that student Republicans had invited to speak on campus.

“I deeply love Berkeley, and I’m at the time in my life when I’m giving back,” said 72-year-old Christ, a veteran Cal professor and administrator who also spent 11 years as president of Smith College, explaining why she agreed to be chancellor at such a challenging moment.

In addition to having “wisdom and experience,” Christ said during a recent interview that she has the advantage of being at the end of her career. “Because you’re so much less worried about the consequences for your own career, you can make decisions that are harder for people who are in an earlier stage of their career,” she said.

Christ quietly took office on July 1, but she has actually been in the hot seat since May 2016 when she became interim executive vice chancellor in charge of day-to-day campus operations and finances and provost—the campus’ chief academic officer. Her predecessor resigned amid criticism over his handling of sexual harassment charges against the law school dean.

For the last nine months, Christ presided over much of the effort to cut $53 million from this year’s budget, which she outlined in late June. She plans to make up more than half of the deficit through increased revenue, specifically through credential and self-supporting master’s degree programs, monetizing real estate, philanthropy, and harnessing value from campus-related research, inventions, and startups. Her plan assumes in-state tuition will grow 2.5 percent a year.

The UC Board of Regents confirmed Christ as Berkeley’s 11th chancellor on March 16 to replace Nicholas Dirks, who resigned facing criticism over his own handling of sexual harassment cases, as well as the university’s red-ink-stained balance sheet.

An expert in Victorian letters, Christ began her career at Cal teaching literature in 1970 and rose to become executive vice chancellor, the school’s highest ranking woman. She left in 2002 for Smith and returned to Berkeley in January 2015 to run the Center for Studies in Higher Education.

Though Christ has long been an advocate for women’s rights, diversity, and Title IX sports programs, she has not encouraged much focus on the fact that she is Cal’s first woman chancellor (to the quiet dismay of some). “When Clark Kerr became the first male chancellor of the University of California, nobody, no reporter, I promise you, was sitting here saying, ‘How does it feel like to be the first male chancellor?’” Christ replied when asked a question on the subject shortly after assuming office.

Nevertheless, Christ acknowledged satisfaction that today 31 percent of Cal’s faculty and 58 percent of its administrative staff are women. Women accounted for only 3 percent of faculty when Christ was first hired nearly five decades ago.

People from various university quarters have expressed a sense of optimism and even relief at having Christ take charge, praising her for a collaborative style that contrasts with the perceived remoteness of Dirks. “As a chancellor she is far more open than her predecessor,” said Michael Burawoy, a sociology professor who is chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association.

Burawoy said Christ “continues to elicit confidence from many parts of the campus,” and he is comforted that she is “showing no sign of indulging some extravagant project that will plunge the campus into further debt.” By that, Burawoy was referring in part to the seismic rehabilitation of Memorial Stadium, which left a $400 million debt still to be paid. “Her experience, her care for details, her knowledge of the campus will allow the debate about the future of Berkeley to move on to a new footing—how to preserve and expand the public character of the university,” Burawoy said.

Kathleen Valerio, a member both of the Berkeley Staff Assembly’s governing council and the chancellor search committee, said staff members are “grateful” Christ took the job and “very excited to have her on board.”

“It would be fair to say that everybody on staff knows that these are challenging times for the campus, and we are very appreciative to have clear thoughtful leadership,” added Valerio, who also praised Christ’s appointment of professor Paul Alivasatos to be the new executive vice chancellor and provost for UC Berkeley, saying his knowledge of the campus also runs deep.

Her comments came even though administrative staffers have borne the brunt of the cuts, with some 450 full-time equivalent positions eliminated since the beginning of 2016, including two vice chancellor positions, mostly through attrition and retirement. Christ said the number would likely exceed 500. Teaching and research, by contrast, were exempted from cuts, mollifying many angered by ballooning management spending.

Christ is getting a salary of $531,939 as chancellor—the same salary Dirks was making. She and the rest of the campus’ senior leadership agreed to forego a raise next year while the school addresses the deficit.

Going forward, Christ said she expects to spend time on the university’s athletic programs, which collectively face an immediate $22 million deficit, including $18 million in annual debt interest. “I think it’s corrosive for any unit on campus to have a deficit year after year after year, and that’s been true of athletics,” she said. The athletics program has lost money for nine of the last 15 years, including the last three straight.

Christ is comparatively excited about supporting path-breaking research at Berkeley. She also said one of her main goals is to the strengthen Cal’s undergraduate experience, something she said will require development of much more student housing. “Berkeley is as much about a transfer student from Fremont or Stockton or Arcata as it is about its Nobel Prize winners,” she said. “It’s the democratic dream of social mobility through education.”

Christ has already met with numerous city officials, and she said she hopes to form partnerships with private developers. “The fact that she’s reaching out to us is impressive,” said city Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

When Christ circulated a list of potential housing sites around the campus, he suggested some other sites and was glad when she welcomed the input.

“Instead of being defensive and saying, ‘That’s not on my list,’ she said, ‘Well, let’s add that to the list,’ ” Worthington said. “Some chancellors really don’t pay attention to the city at all.”

Christ said that in the coming year, she hopes to promote diversity and a stronger sense of community at Cal, in part by fostering a continuing discussion about free speech. That issue has been divisive on campus since February when university police felt compelled to cancel a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after protesters became violent.

More than 100 UC Berkeley faculty members had earlier urged the university to cancel the event. Christ said as a public institution Berkeley cannot just bar certain speakers, and it is important to safeguard the right for minority viewpoints to be heard.

At the same time, Christ wants to protect vulnerable populations from attack.

Toward both ends, Christ plans to be very visible, holding fireside chats, sponsoring visits by free speech experts, and attending student events to raise the subject.

“Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean that it’s right to say it,” she said.

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