Wednesday marks the first day of classes at the University of California, Berkeley, which means it’s also the first day of classes for new Chancellor Carol Christ.
Christ is a longtime academic who first came to the school to teach Victorian literature in the 1970s. She moved into administration, then left to become president of Smith College for a decade. When she returned to Berkeley she became provost — the second highest position of authority on campus. Today, she’s the first female chancellor in the school’s history.
Hope is necessary on this campus. The school is dealing with sexual harassment scandals and major cost-of-living concerns.
“For all of us who work in higher education, this is the most exciting time of the year,” Christ said at a recent press conference. “You're surrounded by new beginnings. These new students beginning their college careers, either undergraduate or graduate. You have new faculty beginning their careers at Berkeley, as I remember so vividly as I arrived here as an assistant professor of English decades ago. And you just take that kind of sense of hope and buoyancy from the students.”
UC Berkeley went from a budget surplus to a huge deficit under former Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. At a recent press conference, Christ said she wants to create “a robust financial model that not only eliminates our deficit but puts Berkeley on a sustainable footing for the foreseeable future.”
Christ released her budget for the upcoming fiscal year earlier this month. She set a goal of cutting the campus’s $110 million deficit by nearly half in the next year. Her budget contains new revenue streams, including private gifts and new or expanded academic programming.
But it also comes with roughly $20 million in cuts to academic, research and administrative divisions.
Taking the helm at UC Berkeley is no small task. The campus has roughly 1,500 faculty and more than 40,000 students.
In conversation, most students don’t know much about the deficit — but many do think the previous chancellor seemed disconnected from students.
“He would never show up to student events,” says sophomore Anna Whitney, a member of the Cal Berkeley Democrats. “He would only ever go to student government meetings once a semester, and you would never see him anywhere else on campus, nor would he be responsive to student demands.”
Christ wants to do things differently. She publicly greeted students arriving on campus last week. And Whitney says she’s already seen the new chancellor be more responsive than her predecessor.
“At least in rhetoric she seems to be more open to collaborating with students on multiple levels,” Whitney says. “I have reached out to her on issues of sustainability, and she's been responsive, and we are communicating, so that is hopeful for me. But the real test will come once the fall semester starts, and things really gets rolling, and she unfolds her agenda with her actions.”
One of those actions is making this what she calls a “free speech year.” UC Berkeley was thrust into the national spotlight in February when a scheduled talk by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos resulted in a riot just outside the student union.
Free speech zone
The campus administration was criticized when it cancelled that speech, and a later talk by conservative author Ann Coulter, because of safety concerns.
Christ said she wants to stop those violent protests that seek to shut down conservative speaking events.
“The hecklers' veto or platform denial strikes at the very heart of our democracy and the mission and principles of the university,” she says. “I believe that any attack on free speech, no matter how abhorrent the views are that are expressed, is an attack on the right of free speech for us all.”
Christ is planning several panels with guests who have highly divergent viewpoints, and she is working with campus police to make sure conservative speaking events are safe for everyone.
“Immediately she reached out to our organization and scheduled a meeting about reclaiming UC Berkeley's free speech mantle,” says senior Naweed Tahmas, the vice president of the UC Berkeley College Republicans, the group that organized the cancelled Yiannopoulos and Coulter talks.
“It is incumbent upon universities to expose students to a breadth of different ideological views, and she seems to take this commitment very seriously at the moment,” Tahmas says.
Christ also says she’s working with the city of Berkeley to reach out to local left-wing groups to encourage them to only protest non-violently.
On another front, students have called out for stricter punishment of university faculty who are accused of sexual harassment.
“We’ve had some sexual harassment cases that have been deeply, deeply distressing and concerning to many of us here,” Christ says.
The campus has been criticized for using too light a hand in punishing prominent faculty, like then-law school Dean Sujit Choudhry, who allegedly sexually harassed an employee.
Christ says a new policy speeds up the investigation timeline and requires the chancellor to approve any punishments. Additionally, her administration is trying to foster discussions within the faculty about sexual harassment.
“Everyone know about what's the open secret: the faculty member that harasses almost serially,” Christ says. “And what we have to do is change the community tolerance of that behavior or the willingness to stay silent.”
Finally, Christ has to deal with complaints about the lack of affordable student housing, which has made long bus rides to class a reality for many Berkeley students.
According to senior Abhishek Dhawan, if you don’t get an early start looking for housing, you could end up living far from campus.
“I kind of woke up a little late, so that was the main issue, and everything that was available at that point in time was getting above my budget,” he says.
At her press conference, Christ said, “A very important aspect of improving the undergraduate experience is increasing our capacity for student housing. We house by far the lowest percentage of our students of any UC school. This is unacceptable. One of my highest priorities is to increase our capacity for student housing, both through building on our own land, but also in partnerships with local developers.”
UC Berkeley is already building a new dorm for 775 students that’s expected to be completed by next August.
Yet creating more new housing will prove a tough task when the school already faces deficits and cutbacks.
Despite Christ’s ambitious plan to cut the deficit nearly in half, her staff still predicts a $2 billion funding gap over the next 10 years.
As Christ says, hope abounds on campus at the start of the year. But this scholar turned chancellor knows well what Victorian author Charles Dickens wrote: “Little do we know wot lays afore us!”