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Opening a New Chapter

September 11, 2017
by Rebecca Flint Marx

On a late morning in July, 17 days after formally beginning work as Berkeley’s 11th chancellor, Carol Tecla Christ sat in her sunlit office in California Hall, reflecting on the meaning of her new job title. “It’s essentially a representational role,” she said. “As the chancellor, you’re the storyteller-in-chief.”

One of academia’s most respected scholars of Victorian literature, Christ knows a few things about constructing a sound narrative. But as the woman chosen to move Berkeley beyond this fraught chapter in its history, she finds herself poised to make some very difficult decisions about the kind of story she wants to tell.

Although it’s true that Berkeley’s history is, in the words of UC President Janet Napolitano, “replete with challenging times,” this moment is more challenging than most. There’s the slew of high-profile sexual misconduct cases involving faculty and staff members—along with widespread criticism of the University’s handling of those cases. There’s the dearth of student housing, something that Christ herself called “a crisis.” There are the annual cost overruns in Cal Athletics and continuing fallout from the $445 million debt incurred by Memorial Stadium renovations.

But most troublesome of all is Berkeley’s $110 million budget deficit. As chancellor, Christ not only has to bring that deficit under control, she has to do so at a time when the California legislature has further decreased its funding for higher education. In 2014–15, the state provided a measly 13 percent of Berkeley’s operating revenue, down from about 50 percent in the 1980s.

“As chancellor, you’re the storyteller-in-chief.”/ 2016 UC Regents, Hulda Nelson

“Resources are exceedingly tight,” said Robert Reich, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor who teaches public policy at Berkeley. “There is a danger that the excellence of this University could be compromised. I doubt it, but [Christ] has got to make sure it’s not.” This is vitally important at an institution that takes enormous pride in its status as the top public university in the world. While alumni feel strongly that a decline in reputation is to be avoided at all costs, they’re not always eager to bear them.

Part of the new chancellor’s challenge, Reich said, is to sell the University to its alumni. “Many of them are well positioned to help, but they’ve succumbed to the false idea that they pay for Cal through their taxes,” Reich says. “That’s less and less the case; we need their financial support. So I think that’s a set of big challenges.”

Still, there is widespread consensus that Carol Christ is up to the task. Her appointment, said Robert Powell, professor of political science and chairman of the Academic Senate, “was greeted as very good news across a huge swath of the faculty.”

“She’s coming in with a great deal of support at this point,” noted Associate Chancellor Emeritus John Cummins. “I think a lot of people are relieved that she’s there. It doesn’t make it terribly much easier, but at least it’s there in the beginning.”

Cummins, who has spent much of his retirement studying the intercollegiate athletic model at Cal and other Division I schools, points to reining in athletics spending as an issue that will test Christ’s leadership. “A number of faculty do not like intercollegiate athletics to be heavily subsidized, and particularly now because of the debt related to the stadium,” Cummins pointed out. But because Cal Athletics cannot repay its debt, the campus will have to absorb some of it. And so “the real question is how much money should the campus provide to intercollegiate athletics,” Cummins said. “That’s really the core challenge that any chancellor faces in this current environment.”

It won’t hurt that Christ, unlike her predecessor Nicholas Dirks, is a Berkeley insider. Her new post is just the latest of many she has held here since 1970 when she joined the faculty of the English department. Over the ensuing years, Christ served as chair of that department, dean of humanities, provost and dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, vice chancellor and provost of the University, and, most recently, interim executive vice chancellor and provost in the Dirks administration. The only thing that interrupted her trajectory as a Berkeley lifer was her presidency of Smith College, a role that Christ held from 2002 until her retirement in 2013.

Robert Powell thinks her familiarity with campus is key. “Berkeley is a complicated, some might say strange and unusual, place. It’s very hard for someone from the outside to figure it out really quickly.”

Christ disagrees with those who feel we should deny provocative speakers a platform . . . “Ultimately, the safe space is inside yourself.”

Although she doesn’t trumpet it, Christ also has the distinction of being the first female chancellor in Berkeley’s soon-to-be 150-year history. Napolitano insists that Christ’s gender was not a factor in her hiring, but she does acknowledge that Christ’s experience administering Title IX at Berkeley—“and the importance she places on that issue”—is a valuable qualification at a time when Berkeley’s sensitivity to gender issues has been called into question.

Also in contrast to Dirks, Christ won’t be making use of the security fence the former chancellor installed around the chancellor’s mansion. That’s because she won’t live in the mansion at all. Rather, she’ll be living in the perfectly nice house she already owns, less than a mile from campus.

And as someone with a deep institutional knowledge of Berkeley, she hasn’t wasted any time in building bridges within its community. “Carol’s management style is just very open and engaging; she’ll talk to anyone,” Powell said. “I don’t mean that in a flippant way—she makes a substantial amount of time to engage in consultation and to keep people informed, and makes sure they’re understanding the basis of decisions, and engages in outreach. That’s essential to the system of shared governance we have at Berkeley.”

One very tough conversation she’s keen on having is about free speech, the idea of safe spaces, and whether or not the campus should host controversial speakers—an issue that gained Berkeley unwanted national attention last year in the wake of violent protests over the scheduled appearance of Breitbart commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Christ disagrees with those who feel we should deny provocative speakers a platform. “I think that is an incredibly dangerous road to go down, and that what you have to do is figure out other ways of creating safe spaces. Ultimately, the safe space is inside yourself and you have to build that kind of sturdiness of self-worth where you can hear hurtful things and feel assured in your own center that they’re wrong.” She admits the issue is complicated and that some students, such as the undocumented, may feel themselves to be in imminent danger. As with any complicated subject, she says it’s important to talk about it as a community and to show that “people who really disagree can talk with respect.”

Christ comes across as eminently practical. She is earnest and fastidious in the way of someone who grew up getting good grades through a love of learning, not a desire to get ahead.

Christ’s open communication style is in keeping with her management style. “The way I always lead is by building a team,” she said. “There is probably no organization in the world that responds particularly well to someone saying, ‘I am the leader; follow me and I’m going to do such great things.’ Particularly at a university, and particularly at Berkeley.”

She calls her philosophy “integrated leadership”—identifying the right people to lead the individual strategies that combine to form your overall strategy. It’s magnanimous but also practical: “If you try to do everything yourself,” Christ laughed, “that’s probably a sure path to a hospital bed.”

Sitting in her office, Christ comes across as eminently practical. She is earnest and fastidious in the way of someone who grew up getting good grades through a love of learning, not a desire to get ahead. Even 47 years after the fact, she talks about her first experiences at Berkeley in tones of wonder. “It was the fall of 1970,” she says. “Haight-Ashbury was still in flower. It was the great days of the student revolution at Berkeley, and it just changed the way I saw the world—I had never seen anything like this before.” She laughs. “I wasn’t about to join the hippie revolution or anything, but it created a sense of freedom that was very exciting for me.”

Christ, now 73, is a born-and-bred East Coaster—she grew up in New York City and did her undergraduate work at Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers, and her Ph.D. at Yale. After joining Berkeley’s English department, she quickly embraced the pervading spirit of liberation. “My first year at Berkeley, I taught a class for the Free University of Berkeley on women and literature,” Christ recalls. (The Free University of Berkeley was created in 1965 as a countercultural alternative to the University, offering free classes and a self-described countercurriculum.) “Then I was invited to teach the class in the English department in my second year; it was one of the first feminist classes on campus.”

In those early years, Christ said, she was “full of the energy and joy of discovering teaching.” Her energy proved infectious. She quickly established a sterling reputation as a teacher, scholar, and collaborator, rising through the ranks to chair the English department from 1985 to 1988, when she was appointed dean of humanities.

“She’s a remarkably steady hand on the tiller, and an exceptionally balanced and thoughtful person,” said Stephen Greenblatt, the Harvard literary historian who worked with Christ during his years teaching in Berkeley’s English department. “I’ve never seen her get thrown off.”

Christ is, he added, “exactly the kind of person you want to have” in the role of chancellor: One who is able to reach across constituencies and listen to everyone without muddling her own clarity of vision in the process. “It’s a very unusual quality,” Greenblatt explained. “We sometimes think of a person [who is] this way as compromising in order to please everyone. But that’s not what she does. She listens, takes in, and weighs. She’s kind and attentive, but also very clear about what she wants.”

Those qualities were on full display when Greenblatt and Christ coedited The Norton Anthology of English Literature, a massive undertaking that Greenblatt described as a “kind of elaborate triage system.” Because the book couldn’t get any bigger, something old had to be taken out anytime something new was added. Christ, Greenblatt recalled, “was always good at figuring out how to effectively and gracefully remove something without throwing away the things you most want to keep.”

Now, he added wryly, “multiply that out by a gigantic university.”

Before Christ decided to take on a gigantic public university in California, she took on a small, private, all-women’s college in Massachusetts. During the 11 years she served as the president of Smith, she enjoyed widespread popularity with students as well as faculty. Known for making herself available to anyone on campus during her weekly “open hours,” and her participation in college life, Christ also spearheaded an initiative to increase Smith’s diversity and developed the school’s engineering program—the country’s first such accredited program at a women’s college.

Her dedication to Smith was such that she stayed on as president for an extra year even as her husband, former Berkeley English professor Paul Alpers, struggled with cancer. He died on May 19, 2013, the same day that Christ led her final commencement as Smith’s president.

Perhaps most importantly as Berkeley eyes its bottom line, Christ managed to grow Smith’s endowment from $851 million to $1.56 billion during a tenure that coincided with both the dot-com bust of the early 2000s and the Great Recession. Those economic downturns created plenty of financial hardship for Smith, something Christ dealt with by making $30 million in cuts to staff, operations, and services. But as the Northampton Republican reported at the time, Christ’s recommendations—which eliminated some 60 faculty and staff jobs—followed a retreat that included faculty, staff, and students. This practice of listening and collaboration in the face of difficult decisions arguably spared Christ the negative headlines that cost-cutting usually engenders; it is also one of many lessons that she plans to apply at Berkeley.

“The things that I learned at Smith, people often assume ‘Oh, it’s not transferrable, you can’t move it to a large research university.’ I actually don’t believe that,” Christ insisted.

In addition to learning how to be a chief executive at Smith, Christ learned how to work with a board of trustees. She also studied private college and university funding models, something that “has been enormously helpful to me in thinking through Berkeley’s budget challenges.”

What she sees when she looks at Berkeley now is an institution “under enormous pressure” due to reduced state funding.

And above all, Christ said, just as she used to joke at Smith about the “Smith bubble,” she “realized in a way that I’d never realized before in my career [that] there’s a Berkeley bubble. And just being outside and having a perspective from someplace else helps you see an institution with clearer eyes.”

What she sees when she looks at Berkeley now is an institution “under enormous pressure” due to reduced state funding. With California’s population and its high school graduation rates both continuing to grow, Berkeley—and the University of California as a whole—must continue to increase enrollment to meet the requirements of its master plan. But while the state has been giving Berkeley money for additional enrollment, it hasn’t been providing substantial capital investment. “And there’s a point,” Christ says, “at which your capital facilities are not any longer adequate for the number of students that you have.”

And so the most pressing challenge Berkeley currently faces, in Christ’s view, “is to maintain our fidelity to our mission even as we’re thinking about ways in which we can generate revenues.”

In late June, Christ provided a glimpse of how this could be achieved when she unveiled her plan to shrink Berkeley’s deficit from $110 million to $57 million during this coming academic year; it’s the first and largest chunk of a four-year plan to eliminate the deficit completely. The strategy entails budget cuts—largely affecting administrative services—and mining six sources of revenue that include private gifts, entrepreneurial activity (such as patents), grants and contracts, and nondegree enrollment and self-supporting professional master’s programs, which some observers worry could dilute the quality of the school and place undue financial burden on students.

“It’s so funny, because Berkeley is so socially progressive . . . But in many ways it’s pretty conservative.”

Another source of revenue will be real estate, something that ties into the student housing crisis, which Christ calls one of her highest priorities. Berkeley houses the lowest percentage of both undergraduate (22 percent) and graduate (9 percent) students in the entire UC system. To address the issue, she and her team are busy exploring partnerships with developers while assessing the housing potential of all of Berkeley’s real estate. That has raised some concerns that People’s Park will be developed. In early July, The Daily Californian’s editorial board penned an open letter to Christ in which it expressed displeasure about potential plans to build housing on “that sacred space.”

Asked about People’s Park, Christ would only say that “we’re looking at every piece of real estate that we own; we’re being comprehensive. People’s Park is obviously a piece of real estate that we own.” Still, it’s clear that she doesn’t regard the park’s current incarnation as sacred: While discussing business strategist Vijay Govindarajan’s advice that institutions let go of their myths in order to move forward, Christ offers People’s Park as an example.

“It’s so funny, because Berkeley is so socially progressive a place, and it obviously embraces innovation in its research. But in many ways it’s pretty conservative. People say we’ve always done it in this way, and that’s the way we’re going to continue to do it.”

Talking to Christ about the myriad challenges that lie in her path, whether of the financial or more ideological variety, it’s hard not to be struck by both the monumental difficulty inherent to her new job and the fact that she came out of a well-earned retirement to take the position. “I’m at the point in my life when I’m giving back,” Christ explained of her decision, her voice a sort of shrug. “I had a set of experiences and relationships that I thought would enable me to move the campus through some of its challenges.”

To be sure, Christ won’t be moving forward alone; as Napolitano pointed out, “she is not the only person who has responsibility here—it’s going to take everyone in the campus community and the alumni to come together.” And as Christ prepares to get started, she does so with hope—“hope,” she says, “that the work that we’re going to do at Berkeley will be a model for other public universities.”

What Carol Christ wants, in other words, is to tell a story with a happy ending.

Rebecca Flint Marx is a food writer in San Francisco whose work has appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, and The New Yorker.

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