The Chancellor of Berkeley Weighs In

When Carol Christ first joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, more than fifty years ago, she remembers a new colleague giving her a half-joking piece of advice: don’t bother preparing the last three weeks of your class, because you’ll never get to teach them—the students will all be out on strike. Protest has been part of her experience at Berkeley throughout her career there, first as an English professor (she specializes in Victorian literature) and later as an administrator; apart from an eleven-year stint as the president of Smith College, in the early two-thousands, the university has been her professional home. She assumed its top leadership role—chancellor—in 2017, and announced last summer that she would retire in 2024.

The job of heading a college or university has rarely come under greater public scrutiny than in the past two months. Since the October 7th Hamas attacks on Israel and the beginning of the Israeli assault on Gaza, campuses across the country have seen a wave of protests—and accompanying accusations of both Islamophobia and antisemitism. There have been demonstrations, open letters, official statements, follow-up official statements, confrontations, threats, anger, and fear. At Cornell, campus police placed the Center for Jewish Living under guard; at Columbia, the administration disbanded pro-Palestinian student groups. At Berkeley, students organized a mass walkout on behalf of Palestine. During the walkout, a student carrying an Israeli flag was allegedly hit with a water bottle, an incident that’s now among the campus conditions cited in a lawsuit alleging antisemitism at the law school. Earlier this month, the presidents of Harvard, M.I.T, and the University of Pennsylvania testified before Congress in a hearing titled “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.” Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Trump-aligned Republican, went viral with her questioning, in which she pushed the presidents to say whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violated their institutions’ rules. Their responses, which parsed definitions of protected speech, inspired widespread outrage. Liz Magill resigned as president of Penn a few days later. Claudine Gay faced calls to step down as president of Harvard, but maintained the governing board’s support.

Christ spoke to me over Zoom from her office. After a turbulent semester, the campus seemed quiet, she said—it was finals week, and students were focussed on their work. The question on the horizon: “What do we do when the spring semester starts?” She’d been thinking about the Vietnam War, and the teach-ins she attended in her own student days. “You went to learn; they weren’t shouting matches,” she told me. “I wonder if we can use something like that.” In our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, she discussed her hope that through free speech, the Berkeley community can find a way to navigate “almost existential differences of opinion.”

To start out, maybe you could break down what you’ve seen as your role, as the leader of a university like Berkeley, during this time of intense conflict.

What I think a president or chancellor needs to do is make space for all students. In other words, in these days of increasing diversity of all sorts on college campuses, what the president or chancellor, I believe, needs to do is to create a sense of belonging, of membership in the campus community, for all students. And that means, in relation to a very divisive issue like the current conflict, you of course want to express sympathy, compassion, and empathy for the extraordinary suffering that has gone on in the Middle East; the loss of life; the way in which students are deeply, deeply affected, feel unsafe, feel harassed, and are just deeply caught up in this conflict. At the same time, I think it’s wrong for someone in this position—although this is controversial, and many people, particularly outside universities, don’t have sympathy with this point of view—to take sides or to pass judgment on one party or the other.

One of the really interesting things about universities in general is that they have an enormous range of both individuals and groups who feel that they have an ownership stake. So it’s not as hierarchical a structure as you would think. Whether it’s alumni or donors or students, staff, faculty—all of them feel with passion that they have an ownership stake, and should be able to have a major voice in positions that the institution takes.

I have not been in a crisis in which presidents’—or, in my case, chancellors’—words have seemed so important. And not just Do you make a statement, do you not make a statement? but, rather, very particular words. You must use this word; you must not use this word. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m in a situation in which there are at least two, sometimes I think more, speech codes that people are using to represent their sense of the situation. There’s a speech code if you’re representing the situation of Israel, in anger and with a sense of its violation, and there’s a speech code if you’re speaking about the Palestinian history in Gaza and the West Bank, and often the words are the same. But they mean something different and they apply to different things.

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