2022 began with virtual classes. In summer, we saw protests around the planned development on People’s Park, and now UC academic workers are on strike. The Daily Californian sat down with UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ to discuss these issues and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Starting in the spring semester, what was it like to lead campus through the CEQA challenge?
A: It was a very tense time, as you can imagine. We were tearing our hair out thinking about how we could admit as many students as possible. It was hard work on the actual number crunching, together with political work. On one hand, we didn’t want to be seen as working with the legislature and the governor while the court was considering it, because they wouldn’t take that very kindly. On the other hand, we wanted to tee everything up so that if the court were to deny our appeal we would be ready to go. This political strategy was successful because the legislature acted in less than a day. The legislature has now stipulated that enrollment is not subject to suit under CEQA except for when a campus has a long-range development plan approved, which is every dozen to 15 years. So we feel very comfortable with our enrollment right now.
Q: There was some controversy around campus plans to develop People’s Park over the summer. While the development is currently paused because of the ongoing court case, what is your intention with the project moving forward?
A: I’m really determined to build on People’s Park. I think all three aspects of the project are really important. One is the residence hall. It will be apartments for (upperclassmen) students. The second is long-term, permanent, supportive housing for homeless people. I feel strongly that we have to provide better for homeless people than saying ‘yeah, pitch a tent on our sidewalk.’ I think the solution for homelessness is housing. The third thing is having a park that’s really a park, that people can use as a park and that has commemorative elements recognizing its history. In fact, we would love to co-create those commemorative elements with both students and park elders that really care about the history of the park.
Q: Moving into this semester, we are in the middle of a divisive strike. I understand university budgets are finite, but many are saying the cost of living is crippling. What are the solutions or compromises that you see for this problem?
A: Well, I cannot talk about the strike because it is seen as an unfair labor practice. It would be like bargaining outside the bargaining table when I’m not a member of the bargaining team, opining in ways that try to influence the bargaining. But I’ve made one of my highest priorities building more housing for both undergraduate and graduate students. We’re about to break ground on a graduate student apartment building that will be in Albany by University Village. I think the solution is to have much more university-provided housing.
Q: What would you say to undergraduate students about the strike, and the loss of classes and learning?
A: I feel really concerned about undergraduates losing the instruction of their GSIs at this point. The GSIs are an essential part of our teaching program and I know that they are the go-to people in so many classes, so I feel very bad about that. Some faculty I’ve talked to are doing very heroic things to try to make up for it, but it doesn’t really make up for it.
Q: One positive thing this year has been the success of the ‘Light the Way’ campaign. How will the success of this fundraising campaign benefit students? Can you identify any areas that we’ll be able to see this money in in the coming years?
A: Absolutely. First of all, we’ve hit our goal for financial aid, so we have $400 million more for financial aid.
We also have a number of buildings that will really benefit undergraduates. For example, one of the goals is completing two more floors of Moffitt Library in the ways that the fourth and fifth floor are completed. We’re building a new building for data science. There’s also a new chemistry building that we’ll be breaking ground on soon. There has been a gender equity campaign for facilities in women’s athletics, that will result, if we ever get through the lawsuits, in a beach volleyball court and also a new softball arena.
And then there have been some absolutely wonderful gifts. I just found out yesterday about a program about democracy for Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholars. There was also a gift to endow the Haas Scholars program. There have been a number of gifts for what we call the Discovery Initiative, which is to ensure that every student has a discovery experience. It’s basically an independent project of some sort. We’ve also had lots of gifts for the Basic Needs Center and in the area of equity and inclusion.
Q: What is your general perspective moving into 2023?
A: Oh, gosh. I just think we have a lot to do to rebuild community. I think we are very slowly coming to terms with the way in which the pandemic wasn’t only hard in medical terms — in terms of death, in terms of illness — but there is no community that hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic. I thought we were beginning to make progress and then the strike happened — which, if you just look out on campus there’s hardly anyone there — it makes it really hard. It’s going to be difficult for people when the strike ends to rebuild community, to rebuild the sense of supportiveness. When I’m thinking about the next year it’s really thinking about community and what I can do to help build community.
Q: Is there anything you would have done differently this year, in retrospect? Or anything you wish you (or students) had known at the start of the year?
A: There are areas where I wish we were making better and faster progress. I think of the repatriation of the human remains in Hearst (Museum of Anthropology) and how I wish that were progressing faster.
I’m also regretful about the conflict that happened in the law school in regard to the bylaw that was passed by some student organizations. I’m not sure what we could have done differently, but it has created a lot of animosity and distrust, as well as this sense on both sides that the campus doesn’t value or welcome their presence.
I guess I could say I wish we had won more football games as well.
Q: What do you want students to know about the future of UC Berkeley?
A: I think Berkeley has an extraordinary culture. Whether it’s faculty or students, they are always trying to go beyond some frontier. Even though we have lots of obstacles and challenges, that spirit always carries us through. I’d like people to embrace the spirit of Berkeley, which is that we question the status quo, we go beyond the boundaries of things. I also want students to know that this is their place, and this is for you while you’re here. The students that come here have worked so hard. You have excelled so much. I would love students to really be able to feel ‘this is my place that I can take what I want from in the ways that I want to grow.’ That’s one thing I’d like students to know. I’m very bullish on Berkeley.