New UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ has a long history with Cal and higher education leadership. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

There will be no honeymoon period for new UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, who took office in July following the resignation of Nicholas Dirks.

The former president of Smith College has inherited a university that is both politically fragmented and financially strapped. The thousands of students who began pouring back onto campus Monday are bracing for a fall semester marked by tussles over free speech, returning to departments demoralized by sexual harassment scandals and budgetary crises and, in some cases, still looking for a place to live in a region that is desperately short on housing.

“This has been a hard period of several years for the campus and that’s taken a toll on the community and people’s sense of collegiality,” Christ said.

In July, Berkeleyside sat down with the new chancellor, the first woman to hold the position. The Victorian literature scholar was still settling into her new office in California Hall, so shelves were empty and walls were bare — save for the photographs of the Free Speech Movement that came with the place. Christ, who served as UC Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost both before and after her stint at Smith, didn’t travel far to take up her new post, and she had quickly gotten down to business.

Christ, reportedly well-liked by her Cal colleagues, told Berkeleyside that she is quite aware of the reparative work on her plate. But she said she delights in the strategic thinking necessary to tackle financial disarray, as well as the interpersonal work of rebuilding community.

Berkeley and UC Berkeley are new battlegrounds

Though leading a top-tier research institution is an inherently public task, Christ will be in an extra-bright spotlight this year, as she tries to stop a political battle seemed poised to turn into a full-blown war. Both the city of Berkeley and the Cal campus have become battlefields between members of the far-right and those dedicated to preventing, often with force, what they see as hate speech. The university’s response to the fights has been the subject of maligning from all sides — as well as a lawsuit from some of its own students.

At Cal, tensions can be traced back to an event in February, when a scheduled anti-immigration talk by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was shut down by protesters who destroyed university property and, in some cases, were physically violent. Groups on both sides subsequently returned to Berkeley several times to duke it out. Meanwhile, the Berkeley College Republicans and funders Young Americas’ Foundation attempted to bring other conservative speakers to campus, and when the university placed restrictions on where and when they could talk, citing fears of violent protests, the students cried censorship — at the birthplace of free speech, no less.

Christ said UC Berkeley will need to have “a very complex” discussion about protecting both free speech rights and students’ wellbeing.

“I think it’s absolutely essential that conservative speakers — even of the most provocative sort — can speak at Berkeley,” she said. “But we have a lot of work to do as a community in thinking about what resources individuals have that are not the heckler’s veto to counter things that may be deeply hurtful and assaultive on their identities. Just because someone has the right to say something doesn’t mean that it’s right to say.” (The heckler’s veto is the suppression of speech for fear of a violent response. The College Republicans believe Cal used the heckler’s veto to cancel their events.)

Christ said she is planning events where members of the campus community will be able to discuss these questions, as well as a speaker series where intellectual opposites will debate one another.

“You can’t cut your way to heaven”

It is not only community, but also a strained budget, that Christ is tasked with rebuilding in her new role. And the chancellor has somewhat different ideas than her predecessor about the way to do that.

In early 2016, at the start of a long-term effort to climb out of a $110 million structural deficit, Dirks said UC Berkeley might consider merging academic departments, eliminating hundreds of campus jobs and making other major cuts. Faculty and students complained about the potential measures and said the process had not been transparent.

“I think that was a mistaken project,” Christ said. “Closing departments at schools doesn’t save very much money. It is enormously difficult for the community. That’s not the direction I’m taking.”

Carol Christ is UC Berkeley’s 11th chancellor. She started the job in July 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

She repeated a line she said she heard at a talk and found resonant: “You can’t cut your way to heaven, but you can spend your way to hell.”

In a statement released to the campus in June, Christ said increased revenues — not cuts — will account for more than half of the about $53 million deficit reduction the university is shooting for in 2017-18. Budget materials released in early August show academic expense reductions account for $3.6 million of the $25.5 million cut target, and $27.6 million in revenue makes up the rest of the deficit reduction.

“I don’t think cuts are the way to solve Berkeley’s financial challenges,” said Christ, who chaired Cal’s English department in the 1980s.

And how does one boost revenues amid waning support from the state? Christ said her office is employing a number of strategies, including increasing enrollment in non-degree programs, like summer school and UC Berkeley Extension, and in self-supporting master’s programs. Other steps will include monetizing Cal’s real estate and exploring entrepreneurial approaches like patents and venture-capital partnerships, and supporting start-ups from campus discoveries. Lastly, Christ said, Cal will seek out more contract and grant opportunities, as well as private gifts.

Public funding still a critical piece of the budget

In spite of the smaller contributions from the state, Christ said she still very much considers UC Berkeley a public, Californian university, and one she is proud to have international institutions aspire to emulate. Public funding is still a critical piece of the budget, she said, and the UC Regents’ decision to place a cap on out-of-state enrollment was “wise.” Serving California students — and the rest of the state, through research — is the priority, she said.

“Berkeley is a global model but that doesn’t mean we stand apart from our community,” she said. The chancellor also said she considers the city of Berkeley “our most important partner,” as town and gown each influence the character of the other. Both Christ and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín have said they have begun to work on improving the relationship.

“We have to be better partners. Campus-city relations are very complicated and have many tensions in Berkeley,” Christ said.

A decent working relationship will be especially critical as the university, city and region all continue to grapple with a housing crisis. In order to meet what Christ described as a “modest” student housing goal — two years of housing guaranteed for freshmen, and one year each for graduate and transfer students — UC Berkeley would have to add 7,000 new beds, she said.

Christ chaired a task force that spent last fall identifying nine potential spots where the university could build new student housing on land it owns. The site that could support the largest number of new housing units is the Oxford Tract, currently used for biology research. Building on the tract, as well as many of the other proposed sites, including People’s Park, presents political and bureaucratic challenges, so the ideas are unlikely to come to fruition any time soon.

Christ said her shorter-term goal is to partner with private developers. Currently, Cal leases three buildings from private owners, and rents out the rooms to students. Christ wants to go further, designing buildings to the university’s specifications and entering into 20-year leases with developers.

UC Berkeley will also explore the development of housing for faculty, many of whom commute long distances because they cannot afford to live near campus, Christ said.

The new chancellor is, in fact, one of the rare people with guaranteed housing on campus. Christ has nonetheless decided to pass up University House in favor of continuing to live at her North Berkeley home. The chancellor’s mansion will be used for events.

Christ will instead work on making her new office in California Hall hers. She is cognizant that it has belonged to long line of people whose decisions and leadership have created the university she helms today. Though Christ knows changes are needed, she wants to honor that legacy.

“For any of us who lead colleges and universities, we’re just stepping into river that’s come a long distance, and when we step out it’s going to keep going. You have to have that historical humility,” Christ said. “Anyone who has a command-and-control idea of what it’s like to lead a university has a very wrong idea.”

Tracey Taylor and Lance Knobel contributed reporting to this story.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...