As Kerr’s promise dwindles, higher-ed center dreams big

The leafy campus of Smith College, where Carol Christ was president for 11 years, sits 100 miles west of Boston, some 3,000 miles from UC Berkeley. But Berkeley, for Christ, is a state of mind. She joined the English department here in 1970, her very first job in academia. By 2002, when she departed for Massachusetts, she was serving in the campus’s No. 2 leadership position. She had no doubt she’d be back.

Carol Christ

Carol Christ

“Berkeley is a seductive place,” says Christ, who figured returning home would also mean a return to her academic specialty, Victorian literature scholarship. But “that didn’t really engage me,” she found. “I didn’t feel part of the conversation anymore, and wondered about writing about higher education.”

So when Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks asked her to direct the Center for Studies in Higher Education — a post held by veteran professor and administrator Judson King from 2004to 2014 — she didn’t hesitate. Higher ed, like Berkeley, was in her blood.

“I realized, in this year that I spent after I stepped down from the presidency of Smith, that I was fundamentally in the field of higher education,” she says, ensconced in her small, seventh-floor office in Evans Hall. “That’s what I knew about, that’s what I thought about. And I thought, boy, it would be interesting to have the perspective and resources of the center to explore and create programs about issues in higher education.”

Christ, of course, had already seen college life from an impressive number of vantage points. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Douglass College, her master’s and Ph.D. from Yale. After joining the Berkeley faculty she took on a series of leadership roles that included chair of the English department, dean of humanities, provost of the College of Letters and Science and executive vice chancellor and provost. Then, at Smith, she oversaw a school that “couldn’t be more different” from Berkeley — women-only versus co-ed, private versus public, small liberal arts college versus large research university, rural versus cosmopolitan, East Coast versus West, and so on.

“I always think of myself as being very privileged to have seen higher education from two such different institutional perspectives,” says Christ (rhymes with “list”), though she’s quick to add “there are lots of kinds of institutions I’ve never spent time at,” such as community and for-profit colleges.

Still, “I certainly know private education and public education in the kind-of elite institutions very well,” she says. “And one of the things that is frustrating to me is that there are a lot of conversations like the blind men and the elephant, that everybody sees a little piece of things, and they assume that that little piece of things is what the whole world is like. And it’s quite different, depending on the kind of institution you’re in and the challenges that it faces.”

‘The stimulant to conversations’

The Center for Studies in Higher Education was established in 1956, “a moment,” Christ says, “in which Clark Kerr was leading the university,” and before he ushered in the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which promised universal access for state residents to either a UC campus, California State University or a community college.

“We’re in a very different place, and a number of people have been arguing, both privately and publicly, the Master Plan is no longer the controlling plan for higher education in the state,” she says. “Certainly the vision of the Master Plan, which is very, very low-cost higher education for every young person in the state who qualifies — that no longer applies. It’s much more expensive now to go to the university or even the CSUs than it used to be.”

Yet even in an era marked by “the withdrawal of public investment from higher education,” she points to “a conviction that education is even more essential to success in this world.”

Christ, Goldie Blumenstyk

At a recent “pop-up event” hosted by CSHE, Christ chats with writer Goldie Blumenstyk about the state of higher education.

“I know many people argue it’s changing values,” she says, pondering the reasons for what some consider a “crisis” in higher ed. “I think that the kinds of arguments you hear about the relative weights of pre-professional education versus liberal arts education — you can find them throughout the history of higher education in the United States. I don’t think they’re particularly new to this historical moment.”

Either way, though, that’s just the kind of discussion Christ hopes to spur via the center, which she wants to become “the stimulant to conversations on campus about what’s happening in higher education,” delving into issues from wealth stratification, changing demographics and technology to the challenges facing developing countries, many of which, she says, still look to the United States as a model.

“Take a country like China,’ she says. “How is it going to transform its higher education system in decades, not hundreds of years, so it can be an economic engine? Are they going to be able to successfully adapt American and European models to build that system, and what are its challenges going to be in a country that has a very different culture, and a rate of change that’s so different from the time that it took to build these systems?”

In April alone, CSHE has hosted three seminars on “changes in the global landscape of higher education,” featuring scholars from China, Turkey and Russia — the launch of a series expected to continue next year.  Her first few months on the job have also seen what Christ dubs “pop-up events” with Michael Kirst and Mitchell Stevens, authors of Remaking College, and Goldie Blumenstyk, a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Blumenstyk talk, three weeks in planning, was standing-room-only.

“The academic calendar is very stately,” Christ explains. “And what I’m trying to do is be very open to opportunity.”

The center has also developed plans for a graduate seminar next year to bring together students from across the Berkeley campus who are working on dissertations related to higher ed.

“There are such students,” says Christ. “They’re in public policy, sociology, political science, economics, the information school. But there’s been no way to pull them together. And so it’s my job to pull them together, and to do enough events that people know that we’re here.”

Beyond providing scholars a place to conduct and publish their research, CSHE is also host to ongoing programs like SERU (Student Experience in the Resarch University), a 14-year-old data-collecting consortium with nearly 40 institutional members, and the Executive Leadership Academy, a weeklong institute for the development of leadership in aspiring presidents and provosts.

For Christ, the author of two books and a slew of scholarly articles on Victorian literature, the story of CSHE is still in its early chapters.

“I see it as my task,” she says, “as the center’s director, to build a community, and to increase the profile of the center, both on campus and nationally.”

“People are just interested in higher education,” she adds. “It’s our industry. Everybody’s got, if not a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, or a grandchild — I mean, everybody feels it in their pocketbook, and with their family. So it’s one of these issues that people have a kind of everyday interest in.”

That said, she wouldn’t object if those in policymaking positions began to view the center as more of an intellectual resource, as was the case in the heyday of Clark Kerr and the Master Plan.

“The center used to have a very strong connection to the Office of the President, and used to do research that people wanted done,” says Christ. “It would be great if it started to play that role again.”