Leading Berkeley Through Free Speech Tests

New chancellor assumes duties amid debate over and scrutiny of university’s response to controversial speakers.

August 15, 2017
 
University of California, Berkeley
Carol Christ

As battles in the new culture wars continue to spill onto college campuses across the country, it is no surprise that University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor Carol Christ is making free speech a point of emphasis in her first year.

Christ, 73, will be announcing her plans and priorities for Berkeley Tuesday, the same day the prominent public research university holds a convocation for 9,500 new students. One of her top priorities in the new academic year is focusing on issues of free speech -- what some at the university are casting as reclaiming Berkeley’s legacy as the home of the free speech movement.

The historical ties aren’t the only reason Berkeley’s focus on free speech is particularly important at the moment. The university was rocked this winter by violence before a planned appearance by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. A speech he planned to give was canceled in February amid the unrest, with police saying they were forced to evacuate Yiannopoulos for safety reasons -- officials said "masked agitators came onto campus" and instigated violence. The university was again plunged into a free speech controversy in April, when a talk by conservative commentator Ann Coulter was canceled after threats of violence and police saying they were unable to guarantee safety when and where she wanted to speak.

The incidents drew howls from the right, who accused Berkeley of attempting to silence conservative speech on campus. The university found itself a symbol for the conflict between conservative speakers pushing the envelope and upset protestors pushing back.

Those events took place before Christ took over as Berkeley’s chancellor, a move that became official July 1. But she was interim executive vice chancellor and provost at Berkeley, a role that had her responsible for the campus’s day-to-day operations and finances as well as its academic programs and faculty recruitment.

Berkeley, as a public institution, is fully committed to protecting free speech, Christ said during a telephone interview Friday. She personally believes a healthy political dialogue needs voices from all parts of the political spectrum to be heard, she added.

“We are deeply committed to the principle of free speech,” she said. “At the same time, we don’t want to, in any way, minimize or trivialize the concerns of people in our communities that feel that sometimes speakers come and say not only things with which they disagree, but things that they feel are deeply abhorrent to them. We need to spend a lot of time as a community thinking about those tensions, but that doesn’t in any way minimize our commitment to free speech.”

Controversial speech raises questions about campus security protocols, particularly after the clashes that erupted this winter at Berkeley and the deadly violence that took place in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend after white nationalists rallied at the University of Virginia. In her interview Friday, which took place before the events unfolded in Virginia, Christ acknowledged the need to balance free speech and safety.

“We have the responsibility to protect free speech,” she said. “We also have the responsibility to protect the safety of our students. And so of course we’re doing planning on the security side.”

Berkeley has already been thrust into the free speech debate this summer, even before the beginning of the fall semester. Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation in July said the university blocked conservative commentator Ben Shapiro from appearing.

The university said it was unable to find a space meeting size requirements on the September date requested and that it had offered alternative times. The groups labeled the explanation “laughable,” saying “an endless stream of liberal speakers” were being allowed to speak without time or place restrictions.

Berkeley is clarifying some of its policies in response to recent events, Christ said. But she said that rather than being a fundamental change, the move is aimed at specific details, like making sure student groups understand how to reserve venues before inviting speakers.

Yiannopoulos has said he wanted to host free speech rallies at Berkeley this fall. He and other speakers will be accommodated just like any other speaker, Christ said.

Berkeley also plans events, forums and debates under its free speech focus. The essence of the university is a marketplace where ideas can confront one another peacefully, Christ said.

“Free speech is also having those hard discussions between people who disagree fundamentally on important issues and being able to disagree civilly and respectfully,” she said.

Monday evening, Christ sent a statement to the campus saying she was horrified by the weekend's events in Virginia and condemning "the reprehensible acts of the racist groups" bringing violence to Charlottesville. She called on Berkeley to come together to oppose threats and defend a belief in reason, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Christ also noted that planning is already underway for controversial events at Berkeley this fall.

"Paired with our commitment to the First Amendment is an equally firm commitment to the safety of the members of our campus community and their guests," she wrote. "We believe deeply in the value and importance of nonviolence, and we will make every effort to deter, remove or apprehend those who seek to cause harm to others, as well as to provide the resources, support and guidance that can help make events on our campus safe and successful."

Christ was the president of Smith College from 2002 to 2013. But her ties to Berkeley date back decades. She joined the university in 1970 as an assistant professor of English and remained there in various positions both academic and administrative before leaving for Smith. She returned to Berkeley in 2015 to direct its Center for Studies in Higher Education before taking on the interim executive vice chancellor and provost role.

Christ’s other priorities as chancellor at Berkeley include building community at the university, which enrolls roughly 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students, in order to overcome difficult recent events like the free speech clashes, budget worries and sexual harassment scandals. She also wants to improve the undergraduate experience, help faculty perform research, improve the university’s budget situation and boost diversity among students, faculty and staff.

Berkeley faced a budget deficit of $150 million in June 2016, Christ said. The deficit was reported at $110 million this year.

Christ’s goal is to bring the deficit down to $57 million in 2018 and eliminate it by 2020. To do so, she wants to increase revenue from nondegree enrollment, master’s degree programs, entrepreneurial activity like ownership stakes in start-ups, monetizing real estate and philanthropy. She has also written that cuts were necessary but that the university will try to find new revenues instead of future cuts.

Christ has also made finding a dedicated funding stream for deferred maintenance a priority. But she recognizes the university is operating in an environment of constrained state funding.

“I certainly will do everything that I can to advocate that state funding stays stable,” she said. “Understanding the state budget in the way I do, I don’t think it’s likely that it’s going to go back to its former levels.”

Christ, who is the first woman to be Berkeley’s chancellor, also had some noteworthy comments on diversifying the university, its professors and its leaders. Asked about what is known as the leadership pipeline problem in higher education -- the idea that diverse candidates are not being promoted through the ranks far enough or in great enough numbers to increase their presence in the pool of candidates for leadership positions -- Christ said Berkeley should be able to overcome that challenge.

“Yes, to a certain extent, there is a pipeline problem,” Christ said. “But I think for an institution that is as attractive a place to be as Berkeley, there is talent out there, and we can do a better job recruiting it.”

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