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Black and white portrait of Carol Christ looking slightly upwards with a thoughtful expression. Marcus Hanschen

Exit Interview with the Chancellor

After seven years at the helm, Carol Christ hangs up her iconic blue blazer. Before she headed out the door, California sat down with her for a final interview.

May 31, 2024
by Pat Joseph

One of my favorite quotes from Clark Kerr, Berkeley’s first chancellor, is his bit about how “The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself.” I imagined it was something that anyone who had ever led the institution would instantly agree with.

As you’ll see in the interview that follows, not Carol Christ. Berkeley’s eleventh chancellor, and the first woman in the position, didn’t see it that way.

“That’s an interesting conception,” she allowed when we spoke in her office on the morning of April 8, during a relative calm between storms. Then she demurred. “I actually think there’s a remarkable degree of consensus about the mission of the university. And that’s what makes it such a wonderful place. … I don’t think that I would characterize Berkeley—although it’s ironic given the moment that we’re in—as a university that’s at war with itself. I mean, certainly there are tensions, but there are tensions in any complex organization.”

I didn’t dare remind her that the building she works in, California Hall, lacks adjacent door handles because, in the past, student protesters had used them to lock administrators in their own offices. Or that it had recently been on lockdown during a protest (albeit a peaceful one) involving Jewish students and faculty alarmed by a perceived rise in antisemitism. Or that Sather Gate was partially blocked just then by pro-Palestinian protesters. Or that a recent conversation she’d had on stage in Zellerbach Hall (on the topic of free speech, no less) had been repeatedly interrupted by hecklers. Or that the university had practically had to lay siege to People’s Park. Or, well, you get the idea.

I wasn’t just being polite, though. For starters, she didn’t need reminding from me. She’d been dealing with Cal’s campus strife full-time for the last seven years, and long before that, when she first joined the administration in the ’80s. But more than that, I admired her equanimity in the face of all the ruckus
around her and her refusal to let minor disturbances get in the way of the main business of the university, or to let them define campus life. She exuded a calmness combined with a quiet resolve that I found enviable.

Without doubt, those characteristics have served her well in her time as Berkeley’s top administrator. The results are evidenced by her success in balancing the budget, in leading a multibillion-dollar capital campaign, in adding desperately needed student housing, and in founding Berkeley’s first new college in more than 50 years—all of it while guiding campus through a global pandemic. It’s more than fair to say she leaves Berkeley better than she found it.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I’d always imagined myself as a professor at a small college in New England. What was this Berkeley, this strange university? But I came, and I fell in love with it.

When people found out I was interviewing you, they wanted to know two things. First, what does a chancellor really do? Second, where does she get her blue suit jackets? I’m not sure of the propriety of that second question, but it is an iconic look that you’ve established for yourself. Was it purposeful? Is it just your taste in clothing?

First of all, it isn’t. And then I realized that, you know, I do so many events that are what I think of as “Go Bears” events. It’s nice to have blue to wear.

Well, it’s a good look. Very buttoned up. Very “I’ve got it together.”

Yeah. [laughs] Good.

OK, so back to the first question. What does a chancellor do?

I would say it’s a lot like being a small city mayor. As chancellor, you have to connect and communicate with many different constituencies, both internal and external, and try to build coalitions and hold them together to move the university forward. It’s not like I can sit in this office and just make decisions by
myself. Almost everything requires consensus of stakeholders. And everybody feels that they’re a stakeholder in the university.

I’ve read that you cried when you were first offered a teaching position at Berkeley—and they weren’t tears of joy. Why were you upset?

I’d never been west of Philadelphia. And I knew my dissertation director wouldn’t let me turn down this job. It was way too good. But I’d always imagined myself as a professor at a small college in New England. What was this Berkeley, this strange university? But I came, and I fell in love with it.

That was 1970, the year after People’s Park, the year after Reagan tear-gassed Sproul Plaza. What was your early experience of the campus like?

When I first got here, I was told by many colleagues, “Oh, don’t even bother preparing the last quarter of your class. You’ll never get to teach it. The students will be out on strike.” In fact, that never happened. The protest years of the ’60s were suddenly at an end, although south of campus it was still very much a hippie culture. Lots of merchants on Telegraph Avenue selling things on the sidewalks. People’s Park was actually, at that point, a very joyous and festive place.

Did the counterculture appeal to you?

No, but I found it freeing. I mean, it wasn’t that it didn’t appeal to me. It’s just, I was a buttoned-up person. It’s just not who I am. But coming to a place with this wide range of eccentric behavior, it was very freeing for me to feel, you know, I am who I am.

This was also pre-Title IX. What was it like to be a female faculty member?

The faculty when I arrived here were 3 percent women. I joined an English department of 84 faculty, in which I was the fourth woman. So you really felt like you were in a minority. And I certainly was not recognized as a faculty member. I was often mistaken for being a student. Of course, I was young.

At that time, you were teaching Victorian literature.

I was teaching Victorian literature, but also classes that anyone in the English department would teach: freshman composition, a survey of British literature. And I also was the first faculty member in the English department to teach a course on women and literature. My first year in Berkeley, I was teaching that
course for the Free University, and the chair of my department came up to me and said, “Oh, you could teach that course in the department.”

Tell me about the Free University.

It was just what it sounds like. It was free to students and didn’t pay its faculty. It was a kind of volunteer university. And a group of women came in and met for this class in my living room.

How did you make the transition to administrator?

Well, the first job I was asked to do was to be the chancellor’s faculty assistant for the status of women and Title IX compliance coordinator. It was a fairly new position; this was its second year. And I’d always been deeply committed to women’s issues. I also had young children and was at that point separated from my first husband. And it was a way of both earning more money and making my time more flexible. So I took the job and found that I really loved being in the chancellor’s office and understanding how the university worked.

Do you think there’s something about your personality that lent itself to administrative work?

I wouldn’t have thought so. But I liked it. Part of it is that I have a very organized mind. I’m really interested in figuring out how you can accomplish certain things, what steps you have to take, how do you build consensus for change. And so I guess I have some characteristics that lend themselves to administration. But at that point, my stereotype of a leader was much more of the charismatic person who does it all by himself—and it was always a “him” then. That certainly wasn’t me.

Clark Kerr had a quote about the university being so large and meaning so many things to so many different people that it’s almost of necessity “at war with itself.” Have you experienced that?

That’s an interesting conception. I actually think there’s a remarkable degree of consensus about the mission of the university. And that’s what makes it such a wonderful place. I think that everyone thinks of Berkeley as a place that breaks boundaries, whether it’s political boundaries or scientific boundaries. I think there’s a lot of consensus about striving for excellence. There’s a lot of consensus about the idea that we work in service of the greater good. So I don’t think that I would characterize Berkeley—although it’s ironic given the moment that we’re in—as a university that’s at war with itself. I mean, certainly
there are tensions, but there are tensions in any complex organization.

I feel like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill. We solved [the budget deficit], but then came COVID with its budget challenges, and now we’re in a very difficult budget situation yet again.


You talk about research in service to the greater good. That’s the “public mission.” Let’s talk about public funding. Thirty years ago, as much as 50 percent of the operating budget came from the state. Now it’s more like 13 or 14 percent. Do you think the taxpaying public understands that?

No, I don’t think people understand that. And what’s happened is there’s been a shift between tuition and the state support. Now students pay much more of the cost of education than the state.

Will we ever get back to the former levels of public funding?

I don’t think so. Unless we move to a different taxation structure, which I don’t see. That said, the state is still our most important donor. When you say the percentage the state gives us is only 13 percent of our funding, it is a little bit deceptive in the sense that other parts of the pie, like research funding, have grown so significantly. And the research funding stream is money in the door, money out the door. It’s not money that comes into this office.

When you came in as chancellor, there was a structural deficit of $150 million. Did we manage to get that down?

Yeah, we did. But I feel like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill. We solved that, but then came COVID with its budget challenges, and now we’re in a very difficult budget situation yet again. So, I know many people are tired of this unending climate of austerity, but the university still has budget challenges.

What tools were used to bring the deficit down the first time?

First of all, we created a much more disciplined budget process. When I first came in as chancellor, there was this book of commitments. If you wanted money for a project, you made an appointment to see the chancellor and you asked for money. And the chancellor would say, “Oh, yeah, [makes writing gesture] book of commitments.” I made it so the finance committee has to consider any off-cycle request. I also started to change the budget model, so it wasn’t just about state funding and tuition dollars. We started multiplying and diversifying sources of funding. I tried to make philanthropy not just for nice-to- haves, but for core needs of the institution.

Which brings us to the Light the Way capital campaign. You set a very ambitious goal of $6 billion and have sailed right past it. What explains that success?

Within two weeks of the public launch of Light the Way, we went to remote instruction due to COVID. I thought it was going to kill the campaign. But there was an enormous amount of wealth creation during the pandemic, and there was, in addition, a growing realization of how unequally wealth was distributed
in the country. I also think that people were thinking a lot about their own mortality. And so, paradoxically, this time of national crisis was also a time of very generous giving.

The final figure is over $7 billion, which is more than two years’ operating budget for the university. Is the money already spoken for?

Yeah, there’s a very tiny percentage of money that is undesignated. And the $7.3 billion, that’s pledges. Our rate of fulfilled pledges is very high, so I’m not worried that the money isn’t going to come in, but it’s not cash in hand.

Did Berkeley come out of the pandemic stronger?

I think in some ways we’re stronger. In some ways, we’re weaker. Stronger in the sense that we have discovered so many tools to teach and to communicate. I had a meeting this morning with people who were in London, in Vienna, and California. I think these tools are wonderful. But I also think we have not
succeeded in building community back in the ways that existed pre-pandemic, and I think there’s been huge learning loss for children. We see it in the students, who are coming in with much more unequal levels of preparation than they did pre-pandemic.

There’s a lot of new construction going on around campus. Most newer construction seems centered on science and research. At the same time, many older buildings are falling apart. I think of Hearst Gym as an example.

It is in bad shape, it’s true. But so are many science buildings. And when you have science buildings with maintenance backlogs, the scientists often can’t do their work. So, the deferred maintenance issues are less consequential to the social sciences and humanities than they are to the sciences.

But it’s one of the ways in which I wish the state would step up. Because it’s not thrilling for a donor to say, I want to give money for deferred maintenance, which is a huge need for campus. To address it, I increased what’s called the philanthropic allocation on gifts by 2.5 percent, so we’ll have an income stream for deferred maintenance.

And we have done a fair amount of work on some humanities buildings. Wheeler Hall just had a big upgrade years ago. And of the building projects that are going on right now, the one on Dwinelle Hall parking lot is for [Letters & Science] advising and for classrooms. There’s also the Moffitt Library project.
The bottom three floors are going to be redone as a center for connected learning. That’s very student-centered.

Even in engineering, the Bechtel project is for student services for engineering, not research space. And the Gateway, which is for the new College of Computing, Data Science, and Society, has a very broad reach across campus. So I don’t think it’s quite as lopsided as people may think.

Chancellor Carol Christ standing in front of framed historical photos, wearing a pearl necklace.
Marcus Hanschen

The Gateway is a huge project, more than half a billion dollars, and it will house the first new college at Berkeley in 50 years. How will that affect campus?

I think it’s so exciting, because it takes the tools of data science and artificial intelligence and applies them to areas of inquiry across the whole campus, to disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities, as well as various professional schools like social welfare or public policy.

I know a lot of people are wringing their hands about the so-called crisis in the humanities. But Berkeley has a pretty good story to tell about that.

There was an article in the New Yorker, “The End of the English Major.” And there was one little sentence in parentheses in that article that said, “Berkeley is an exception to this trend.”

What explains that?

In part, it’s that we have such a large student body. And also there’s a kind of urgency about the importance of the humanities; you have these scientific discoveries like artificial intelligence, CRISPR, … all of these things are changing the possibilities and opportunities and even the dangers of the way we live. We need philosophers, we need authors, we need artists to be thinking about these things analytically but also to be representing them artistically.

I remember that the late [Berkeley linguist] Geoff Nunberg used to say the future is too important to leave to the engineers.

Exactly.

You taught a class here called “Monsters in Literature.” That makes me think of Frankenstein but also about AI and CRISPR. Are we in a Frankenstein moment?

I think we’re definitely in a Frankenstein moment. Mary Shelley’s tale is about a creature created by a mad scientist, and the probing question the book asks is, “What rights does this creature have?” And there are so many books being written now that are asking that same question. When you create an artificial being with consciousness, what rights do they have and what responsibilities do you have for them?

OK, moving on to some remaining challenges facing Berkeley. One of the biggest is housing. People’s Park is at an impasse again, although perhaps soon to be resolved. That would add around 1,000 beds. And I think you’ve pledged to add 7,500 beds total.

That’s right. We house the lowest percentage of students of any UC campus by far, and it’s going to be a competitive disadvantage for us in recruiting students against schools like UCLA and UC San Diego, big competitors in the UC system. Both are offering four-year housing guarantees. We can only offer a
one-year guarantee, so we have to add more housing. And as I said to the many people who asked, “Why build on People’s Park, why not build someplace else?” we have to build on every piece of land we have that’s available for housing.

How did the housing shortage become so stark?

There’s several things. When I came to Berkeley, students lived in the community. It was easy to find fairly cheap rental housing then. And I think that for a long time, the university depended on the community to have rental housing available for students. And then the university grew. When I came, there were less than 25,000 students. Now it’s 43,000 students. Berkeley has also become a hot place to live. And it hasn’t added much housing. The university didn’t have a housing strategy. And it should have.

Is there a limit to how big Berkeley can get?

We’re pretty much at the limit right now. But the admissions pressure is huge. Over 124,000 applications for 6,500 places in the freshman class. When I talk to legislators, they tell me they’re afraid to go to the supermarket because people come up to them and talk about their son or daughter or granddaughter
or grandson who didn’t get in and how they’re absolutely wonderful, which I don’t doubt. So there’s enormous pressure to increase the size of Berkeley. But I think the only ways in which we can do that are through more use of online education and satellite campuses.

Is the satellite campus idea being pursued?

It certainly is. I tried very hard to take over the Mills College campus as part of Berkeley, but it didn’t work out. But yes, ultimately, we will develop the Richmond Field Station. Right now, it just doesn’t have sufficient infrastructure, so we would need a for-profit partner to develop it, much the same way we’re developing the Berkeley Space Center at Moffett Field.

One of the arguments that I often make about the value of the university is that we are good for the economy, we are a source of jobs, we’re a source of new wealth. And being able to facilitate that movement [from lab to marketplace] is an important piece of that.

Do you worry about these for-profit partnerships changing the character of the university and affecting its mission?

No, I don’t. Of course, we have to be careful about the terms. And it’s important to think about fair and rigorous intellectual property agreements in these various partnerships.

I had a meeting in the 1990s, when I was provost at Berkeley, of scientists and a number of venture capitalists, where the subject of the meeting was how to shorten the distance between discoveries in the laboratory and the world of startups and venture capital. And everybody left the meeting scratching their heads, saying it was really hard. Now, the distance is so short, and we have programs at Berkeley that give faculty assistance in moving their discoveries to the marketplace. We are now surrounded both by university-run and independent incubators and accelerators.

One of the arguments that I often make about the value of the university is that we are good for the economy, we are a source of jobs, we’re a source of new wealth. And being able to facilitate that movement [from lab to marketplace] is an important piece of that.

We should talk a little bit about sports. All the structural change that has happened recently in college athletics seems pretty ominous.

I agree. The things that most worry me are the dominance of broadcast TV and football. The status of football is so unique, and I’m really worried about the other sports being caught up in a model that doesn’t fit them at all. Our women’s gymnastics team just yesterday won the NCAA regional championship, which is great. Women’s gymnastics is completely different from football. It doesn’t have the same revenue opportunities, nor the same pressures.

I worry about revenue sharing with student athletes, because currently our revenues from football and men’s basketball are what enable us to support Berkeley’s very broad-based, 30-sport program. And I worry a lot about athletes becoming employees. The whole system is so fragile at this point, and I believe that college athletics is going to be dramatically different in five years.

Sounds like it’s going to be a big challenge for…

My successor. People often ask what things I’m really glad that I’m not going to have to deal with anymore. This is one of them.

I’m guessing another is geopolitics and deciding whether to weigh in with a public statement every time something significant happens in the world.

That’s certainly true. Although there are many ways, I think, in which the conflict between Israel and Hamas is unique. There’s a level of rage, of pain, of a sense of physical danger, which seems very odd to me because I don’t think of the campus as an unsafe place. But it’s perceived as unsafe, not because of crime but because of political conflict. For students and indeed faculty on both sides it seems to be an existential crisis. And it has also been caught up in partisan politics in the United States, in which particularly conservative political figures are using what’s happening on college campuses as evidence that universities are on the wrong path.

We saw that with the House hearing in December, which was very striking because it was three female college presidents.

And all of them fairly new in their jobs.

It seems like you could have been there. Were you summoned?

Oh, no, I think they were focused on the Ivies at that point. We have gotten a… I don’t know what to call it… a request? [laughs] It seems too polite a word. A demand for information from that same committee.

The question that ended up causing so much consternation there was, Would calls for a Jewish genocide run counter to the university code of conduct? And the answers that were given were, it seemed to me, basically correct, but also very lawyerly.

Exactly right. I joked with some people that these women thought that they were going into a deposition. In fact, they were going into a Broadway play, and they needed to tell a story that would touch the heart, not give legalistic rationales.

Would you have done better?

I don’t answer hypotheticals. But a lot of people ask me that question. I stay away from it.

On a similar note, you are named in a discrimination lawsuit that charges Berkeley with allowing a culture of antisemitism to grow on campus unchecked. Do you think there’s any merit to that?

I think it’s absolutely false. First of all, we’re one of the few universities, and I think the first in the country, that has funded an antisemitism education initiative. We’ve made the decision to put in our mandatory orientation for new students modules on both antisemitism and Islamophobia. We’re doing a lot. Does it stop all bad behavior? No. But we try to be very vocal about the expectations our community has.

There’s unfortunately a conflict between protections for free speech that the First Amendment guarantees and the protections of Title VI. The First Amendment allows you to say extraordinarily hateful things, unless it’s an imminent threat that is likely to be realized or something that creates imminent danger, like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. You’re allowed to say horrible things, including saying you believe in genocide. But Title VI imposes on universities the obligation to create an environment that’s free of bias or bigotry based on race, religion, national origin, or shared ancestry. And you can see that those two conflict.

I was watching your talk at Zellerbach recently with Condoleezza Rice, which, ironically, was around the topic of free speech. You didn’t get to say much amid all the interruptions by protesters. What are the prospects for free speech today—not only in Berkeley, but across America?

I think free speech is so important. I believe that it is essential for the robust development of political opinions. And that’s in the university but also outside the university and in the public square. But I don’t think free speech is sufficient in and of itself.

I keep talking about principles of community and the need to think about the social context of what you’re saying. And I often say, just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean it’s right to say it. We all know this, we all censor our speech in various settings because we care about the community that we’re part of and want to say things in ways that are constructive, not destructive.

To wrap up, I have to ask about passing the baton to your successor. [The appointment of Rich Lyons was announced to the public two days after this discussion.] What do you tell them? What’s at the top of the to-do list?

Athletics is going to be a big one for the budget. The issue of how big Berkeley should be and how it would grow if it increases capacity. The relationship of entrepreneurship to academia. Those are some big ones.

I touched on all those. I did OK.

You did. [laughing]

OK, then, final question: You came out of retirement from Smith to take this job, and you stuck around far longer than you planned. You failed at retirement the first time around. Are you going to do it successfully this time?

Oh, absolutely! I have lots of things planned to do. So it’s not that I’ll be sitting around twiddling my thumbs, but I’m not going to take another job for pay.

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