UC Berkeley's new chancellor is hailed as 'a brilliant choice'

Carol T. Christ, UC Berkeley’s top academic officer who is headed to become the campus’ next chancellor, was hailed Monday as the right choice to lead the nation’s top public research university through a critical turning point.

The renowned campus has been buffeted by major financial problems, sexual misconduct scandals and widespread discontent over campus leadership. But Christ — a former Smith College president and Berkeley’s current interim executive vice chancellor and provost — will help the university regain momentum, UC officials, faculty and students said.

“It’s a brilliant choice,” said UC Regent John A. Pérez, the former Assembly speaker and a search committee member who met Christ more than two decades ago at Berkeley when he was a student and she was a provost.

Pérez said Christ offered a “unique combination” of vision and strong administrative skills. She also brings top-notch scholarship, intimate knowledge of Berkeley’s complex campus culture and an open, accessible style, he said.

If approved by the UC regents on Thursday, Christ, 72, will take the helm July 1. She will succeed Nicholas Dirks, who announced his resignation in August after widespread criticism from faculty and students over his handling of the campus controversies. Dirks, a distinguished professor of history and anthropology specializing in South Asian studies, has said he will return to teaching and research at Berkeley.

In announcing her selection, University of California President Janet Napolitano noted that Christ would be the 11th chancellor and first woman to lead the 149-year-old campus.

The appointment comes at a “pivotal time in the campus’ storied history,” Napolitano said in a statement Monday. “From among the many highly qualified candidates for the position, Carol’s exceptional leadership and strategic planning skills, her deep commitment to the university’s core values, her many academic and professional accomplishments, as well as her deep knowledge of, and affection for, UC Berkeley stood out.”

Christ, a renowned scholar in Victorian literature, graduated with high honors from Douglass College and received her PhD in English from Yale University.

She joined Berkeley in 1970 as an assistant professor — a time when only about 3% of the faculty were women. For the next three decades, she served as chair of the English department, dean of humanities, provost and dean of the College of Letters and Science, and executive vice chancellor.

She was president of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., from 2002 until her retirement in 2013.

But academia continued to call. She returned to Berkeley in 2015 to lead the campus’ Center for Studies in Higher Education. The following year, she agreed to step in as interim executive vice chancellor and provost amid a leadership crisis over the sexual misconduct cases.

As provost, Christ oversees daily operations, finances and academic programs for the campus’ 37,000 students and 1,500 full-time faculty.

“It is a small way to give back for everything the university has given me,” she said in a statement. “My experience at Berkeley has been transformational; it formed my ideas of higher education, and it formed my ideals of higher education.”

Christ, who has been praised as a tireless champion for gender equality and diversity, was a popular choice among faculty.

Robert Powell, chair of the Academic Senate, said the faculty has especially appreciated Christ’s vast administrative experience, intimate knowledge of Berkeley and collaborative style. Her selection gives hope to faculty, who have been concerned that the prestigious university is in danger of losing ground amid myriad financial pressures and other challenges, he said.

“We’re at a huge turning point,” Powell said. “But there’s a sense now of an opportunity to move forward.”

He said Christ has consulted broadly, for instance, on the sticky issue of how to narrow the university’s $110-million budget deficit — nearly half of which needs to be cut by next year.

“She will meet with any group that wants to talk to her,” Powell said.

Christ’s style contrasts with the perceptions of many faculty and students that Dirks and former Provost Claude Steele were distant and disengaged.

Faculty had complained that Dirks and Steele proposed budget cuts — to dissolve the College of Chemistry, for instance — without adequate consultation. The perceived lack of shared leadership was one reason why more than 45 distinguished professors signed a petition expressing discontent with Dirks last summer.

Frances McGinley, a student vice president of academic affairs, said Christ was highly respected for her outreach to students and her work to improve protections against sexual harassment and violence on campus. She said Christ, as provost, took the initiative last fall to set up regular meetings with student leaders.

“She said she wanted to get a beat on what [student government] was doing and how could she help,” McGinley said. “That never happened before. Usually I have to pester administrators for weeks to get an appointment. There’s a sentiment among students that administration is a black box — just some figurehead who makes decisions without being transparent.”

André Luu, student vice president of external affairs, said Christ listened closely to student pitches to ease the campus housing crunch with fundraising. “She takes the time to listen to student perspectives,” Luu said.

Christ is the second new UC chancellor to be named this year.

The regents last month approved Napolitano’s choice of Gary May, a Georgia Tech dean and UC Berkeley alumnus, to head UC Davis. May will take over in August, replacing Linda Katehi, who resigned last year after a UC investigation into allegations of conflict of interest found that she had violated multiple university policies.

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