Chancellor Carol Christ: ‘I like hard problems’

“Berkeley is a kind of miracle, the University of California system is a kind of miracle,” Chancellor Carol Christ said during a Campus Conversation event on Tuesday. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally)

It is easy, Chancellor Carol Christ told a crowd of UC Berkeley staff, faculty and students on Tuesday, to have a “triumphalist narrative” of UC Berkeley, the world’s best public university.

But taking repeated victory laps can lead to disappointment when the inevitable realities of tuition hikes, housing costs, budget deficits and funding shortfalls consume so much time and energy.

“I think triumphalist narratives get you into trouble because there is no place to go but down,” Christ told the crowd during the spring semester’s final Campus Conversation event, where key administrators take questions from the campus community. “I think it is much more important to have a ‘resilience narrative’ of Berkeley, because there of course have been a lot of challenges in our 150-year history.”

Christ spoke candidly and clearly for nearly an hour, outlining her priorities for UC Berkeley, the results of a strategic planning effort, her hopes for the future and her own personal highs and lows as Berkeley’s top administrator, a job she’s held since last June.

“Berkeley is a kind of miracle, the University of California system is a kind of miracle,” she said. “It is important to think about what kind of miracle it is, but it is important not to shy away from the challenges.”

Among them are a $57 million budget deficit that must be eliminated by 2020, limited student housing, rising tuition, a “Byzantine” financial system and a campus athletics department running in the red.

Christ said she remains focused on five top priorities: building community, enhancing the student experience, increasing diversity, investing in world-changing research initiatives and creating a new, sustainable financial model.

“I’m a student of English,” said Christ, who is also a professor of Victorian literature. “I’m a big believer in narrative, and how important narratives are. I think Berkeley needs to be spending a lot of time thinking about its story.”

Chancellor Carol Christ spoke during a Campus Conversation event on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

Chancellor Carol Christ spoke during a Campus Conversation event on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

Among the hardest parts of the job, Christ said, is trying to make Berkeley more diverse.

Just 3 percent of UC Berkeley’s fall 2017 freshman class identified as African American, Christ said.

“When I came to Berkeley, 3 percent of our faculty were women,” said Christ, who joined UC Berkeley’s English department in 1970. “I know what it feels like to be the 3 percent.”

Christ said that in addition to fostering a more inclusive community and making a point of reaching out to under-represented applicants, she hoped building new student housing units, potentially on spaces like People’s Park and the Oxford Tract, would make Berkeley more affordable and accessible.

Berkeley has just 7,000 school-sponsored beds for some 42,000 graduate and undergraduate students.

“I like challenges,” Christ said. “I like hard problems.”

Asked what keeps her grounded, Christ said that her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren have moved in with her, giving her needed perspective. She also tries to find time to play the viola and piano.

“My 6-year-old granddaughter doesn’t quite understand my job,” Christ said to laughter from the audience. “She thinks I’m the principal of this school. She says ‘You arrange everyone’s schedules, don’t you grandma?’”

Andrew Eppig, a institutional research analyst in the Division of Equity and Inclusion, said he appreciated hearing directly from Christ.

“I think she is a clear and thoughtful communicator,” Eppig said. “I was most interested in how she talked about the issue of student housing. That is certainly one of the struggles our students face.”

Christ said she had no doubt that Berkeley would balance its budget by 2020, and turn to a period of stability.

“I am completely confident that we’re going to balance our budget by 2020; I see the path there, we’re going to get there,” she said near the end of the event. “It would be terrible for the campus to just feel like you’re in this endless tunnel of despair of not having a balanced budget.”

“We have a university that is great,” she added. “So it is on all of us to make the choices that sustain that greatness.”

Contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu