Berkeley’s First Female Chancellor
Given Berkeley’s reputation for being on the forefront of advancing diversity and gender inclusivity, the recently circulated headlines describing our new chancellor come almost as a shock— have we really not yet had a female chancellor during the 149 years since our establishment as a school? Of course, UC Berkeley’s charter was signed over 50 years before white women gained suffrage, and women of color struggled for their right to vote all the way into the 1960s in some parts of the country. We’re all aware of the battle women have fought, and continue to fight, in order to be taken seriously in political and academic spaces. Even though we consider ourselves to be a relatively progressive institution, recent inquiries into cases of sexual assault perpetrated by high-ranking faculty members reveals just how much we’re lacking in our current state. This account of our history of a campus is meant to convey— and I certainly hope that it does— the disparity in how far we think we have come, and the true reality of how much room for improvement remains. Carol Christ will be assuming her position as chancellor at a crucial point in our development as an academic institution and as a nation. We are living during a time in which the current president of the United States was able to say with impunity that his female debate moderator had “blood coming out of her wherever,” and we are going to a university which struggles to monitor and effectively deal with cases of sexual harassment. The appointment of a female chancellor and the integral role she will hold in Berkeley’s administrative hierarchy is certainly a step in the right direction, considering how much distance we have yet to go.
When Carol Christ joined UC Berkeley’s faculty in 1970 as an assistant professor of Victorian literature, only 3% of the faculty were women. Christ was appointed as the head of the English department fifteen years later in 1985, and continued to involve herself in leadership positions over the course of her career at Berkeley. In 1994, Christ became provost and dean of the College of Letters and Science, and later became the executive vice chancellor. Her first administrative position involved assisting in issues related to women on campus, such as enforcing Title IX and UC Berkeley’s commitment to gender equity. The first three decades of her career that Christ spent at UC Berkeley gave her a meaningful and well-developed relationship with our university. In acknowledgement of her history as an educator and administrator, as well as the current state of our university’s shortcomings, Christ said: “I feel honored and privileged to lead the campus at this challenging time. It is a small way to give back for everything the university has given me.” She went on to speak of the ways in which Berkeley has shaped and affected her, much in the way it currently works to transform us as students. Christ said, “My experience at Berkeley has been transformational; it formed my ideas of higher education, and it formed my ideals of higher education." Christ notes the difference between “ideas” and ideals,” for there is a distinct difference between what Berkeley currently is, and what it could and should be. Berkeley should be a place at which students feel confident in their ability to pursue their education, without being made uncomfortable by inappropriate advances of faculty members, and with a sense of certainty that if such infractions occur, the truth of what happened will not be silenced and glossed over to protect those with prestigious reputations.
At this point in time, we can hope that Christ’s “idea” of Berkeley will allow her to carry us further toward an “ideal” Berkeley. We can also celebrate the step that our university has taken toward greater gender equity in appointing a capable and experienced woman as our chancellor. The UC President, Janet Napolitano, said of Christ, “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.” With this strong endorsement of Carol Christ as our chancellor, we can look forward to our university’s development and new future, as well as further progress for women in academic and political spaces.