It has been a tumultuous few years for the University of California, Berkeley.
Last year, the institution announced that it had a budget deficit of $150 million (£116 million), largely the result of a steady drop in state funding and a five-year undergraduate tuition fee freeze in the state of California.
The university has been at the centre of several sexual harassment cases involving high-profile academics; in May, it fired a professor who had been accused of sexually harassing multiple students.
The previous chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, announced his intention to resign last year, after just three years at the helm, in the wake of criticism of his handling of these cases and the institution’s budget.
And the university has come under fire from students, the public and even Donald Trump for the perceived lack of freedom of speech on campus and the cancellation of talks by several high-profile conservative speakers including Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro.
In February, the US president appeared to suggest that he could take away the university’s federal funding, in a tweet that he sent hours after the institution cancelled a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, who was then technology editor of the right-wing news website Breitbart. The university, it seemed to Mr Trump, “does not allow free speech and practises violence on innocent people with a different point of view”.
Despite such fierce backlash, Berkeley’s new chancellor, Carol Christ, who took up the post last month, told Times Higher Education that the university would not make any major changes to its free speech policies.
Instead, she is planning a “free speech year” – a series of events, forums and debates next year that will encourage all staff, students and scholars to “think deeply” about the topic.
“One of the interesting things about the free speech movement [the protest that took place at Berkeley in 1964-65] was that it was a coalition between Goldwater Republicans and people who were fairly far-left in the civil rights movement,” Professor Christ said. “I believe that people from all political persuasions have a deep vested interest in free speech.”
The university has drafted a new policy document to “clarify” its position in this area, she noted.
“Some of the mix-ups last year came from student groups not really understanding what our policies are about reserving venues. It makes common sense that, before you invite somebody, you reserve the venue; not all student groups understood that, including the group that invited Ben Shapiro in the fall,” she said.
But she underlined her commitment to ensuring that any invited speakers are welcome at Berkeley.
“I think Milo has plans to come back, and he said he’s bringing Ann Coulter with him. And, of course, if they are invited by a legitimate student group, they have the right to speak at Berkeley,” she said.
One of Professor Christ’s main goals for her tenure as chancellor is to create a new financial model for the university, with a view to reducing its budget deficit to $56 million by June 2018 and eliminating it altogether by 2020.
Last October, Professor Dirks told THE that he thought that politicians would provide additional funding for US public universities once they were convinced that institutions had done all they could to cut costs.
But Professor Christ, a scholar in Victorian literature and the university’s first female leader, was less optimistic.
“I will certainly do everything I can to advocate that state funding stays stable. [But] understanding the state budget in the way that I do, I don’t think it’s likely it’s going to go back to its former levels when it was much higher,” she said.
Her strategy is for Berkeley to “grow its way out of the problem” by enhancing six revenue streams: non-degree enrolment (on summer courses, for example); self-supporting master’s programmes; entrepreneurial activity including start-ups and patents; research contracts and grants; monetising real estate (such as increasing retail on campus); and philanthropy.
Unlike public universities in some other parts of the world, Berkeley cannot seek to increase the number of out-of-state or international students to boost revenue. A policy approved by the University of California System’s board in May means that Berkeley’s out-of-state enrolment will be capped at the proportion of such students that it enrols in the 2017-18 academic year.
“We can’t, nor do I think it’s right to, grow our out-of-state student enrolment,” Professor Christ said. “Our fundamental mission is to serve the people of California. We’ve been growing enrolment over the past several years; we’re growing enrolment again this current year, but that’s in in-state students.”
Professor Christ, the former president of the liberal arts institution Smith College, is confident when it comes to tackling Berkeley’s operating budget issues, but she said that the capital budget problem is “much harder” to solve and has a “larger long-term risk for the university”.
The state of California has “not issued a bond for capital construction since 2006”, she said, adding that one of her priorities will be to determine a new dedicated funding stream for deferred maintenance.
Other key goals for Professor Christ include increasing the diversity of undergraduates, postgraduates, faculty and staff, in particular the administrative leadership team, and “building community”.
She said that she hopes to achieve the latter through “transparent, frequent, open communication” so that the Berkeley community “understand and trust what is going on”; by being “a very visible and present figure” on campus; and by creating a “shared mission” for everyone on campus.
“It’s not any secret that the past few years have been difficult ones for Berkeley. There’s a lot of repair work to be done in building community,” she said.
“It’s important that we have opportunities of all sorts in which we can feel together that this is our Berkeley, it’s an inclusive Berkeley, it’s a Berkeley in which every individual and every group feels welcomed and valued.”
Troubled times at Berkeley
February 2016: The chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, warns that Berkeley faces a $150 million deficit and announces plans to redesign academic structures, control staffing levels and increase revenues
March 2016: Berkeley pledges to improve its handling of complaints of sexual harassment after its response to cases involving three academics is criticised. Law school dean Sujit Choudhry, astronomer Geoff Marcy and vice-chancellor of research Graham Fleming resigned after complaints about their conduct. However, Professor Choudhry was allowed to remain on the faculty, and Professor Fleming was given a “global ambassador” role after stepping down
April 2016: Executive vice-chancellor and provost Claude Steele, who faced criticism for his role in handling sexual harassment complaints, resigns
May 2016: Professor Dirks attracts criticism for having a fence built around his residence at a cost of $700,000 in the wake of attacks on the property. An exit door installed near the chancellor’s office as a security measure in the event of disorderly protests is condemned as an “escape hatch” by students
July 2016: It emerges that Professor Dirks is under university investigation for allegedly failing to pay for on-campus gym membership and personal training, and for moving exercise equipment from the public gym to his private residence. He is later found to have breached ethics rules
August 2016: Professor Dirks announces that he will stand down as chancellor, saying that “the time is right for me to step aside and allow someone else to take up the financial and institutional challenges ahead of us”
August 2016: Berkeley announces the suspension of its global campus plans, “due to the continued need to address significant budgetary challenges confronting the university”
February 2017: Donald Trump suggests that he could halt Berkeley’s federal funding because the university “does not allow free speech”, in reaction to the cancellation of a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, then technology editor of the right-wing news website Breitbart
March 2017: Carol Christ is named Berkeley’s next chancellor, a role she begins in July
April 2017: A campus talk by conservative speaker Ann Coulter is cancelled amid threats of violence
Carol Christ: key facts
- Joined Berkeley in 1970 as assistant professor of Victorian literature, staying with the institution for more than three decades
- Held wide range of leadership roles, including chair of the English department, before becoming executive vice-chancellor and provost, Berkeley’s number two administrative position
- Served as president of Smith College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, between 2002 and 2013
- Returned to Berkeley in 2015 as director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education
- Reappointed provost on an interim basis in May 2016, before being appointed chancellor earlier this year