HomeEventsBerkeley Chancellor Tackles Free Speech at The Huntington

Berkeley Chancellor Tackles Free Speech at The Huntington

Chancellor of UC Berkeley Carol Christ recently shared moments of leadership amid free speech issues and social change at The Huntington with President Karen Lawrence for the last installment of the “Why It Matters” series.

Christ’s visit comes at a poignant time, when free speech across higher education is being challenged and ideas surrounding it seems to be evolving on university campuses and beyond.

Christ’s storied tenure as an educator includes being the former executive vice chancellor and provost of UC Berkeley, president of Smith College from 2002 to 2013, and serving as a professor of English and an administrator of Berkeley for more than three decades.

“During her illustrious and consequential career, Carol Christ has championed the importance of accessible higher education in the liberal arts and sciences, women’s issues and diversity, as well as fostering campus community,” Lawrence said. “She’s led crucial capital projects, literally building foundations for future generations of faculty and students.”

The series — having previously explored topics such as philanthropy and social justice, importance of historical research and a liberal arts education, responsibilities of museums and collection institutions — consists of conversations about the relevance of the arts and humanities in the present day.

“The ‘it’ in ‘Why It Matters’ changes depending on the person in the hot seat,” Lawrence said at the April 10 event. “Tonight, Carol Christ is with us, and the ‘it’ encompasses leadership in higher education and cultural institutions.”

Lawrence and Christ’s friendship goes back more than 35 years. The two first met at a Modern Language Association event, which brought together all female chairs of university English departments. While at Sarah Lawrence College, Christ served as a trustee. Another duty she assumed over the course of her 10 years at the institution was advising Lawrence, who was president of the school.

When Christ initially intended to slow down and take a half-time appointment as the director of the Center for Studies of Higher Education, she instead went on to take on the interim provost position at UC Berkeley when her predecessor resigned. Afterward, Christ put an end to the search for its 11th chancellor, a role at the university that had never been filled by a woman before.

“I really flunked retirement,” said Christ, who now has her sights set on retiring from her chancellorship in June.


The semester before Christ began as chancellor, she recalled a moment in time when a riot broke out, a fire had been set and damage was created in response to right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos coming to campus to speak. He needed to be escorted off campus for his safety and his speech was canceled.

“One of the things that I observed, thinking not only about that event but the aftermath of it, was the huge reputational damage to Berkeley for a conservative speaker not getting to speak on campus,” said Christ, who was determined, as chancellor, to foster a safe environment that would allow conservative speakers to express their messages on campus.

The first conservative speaker the university hosted on campus after that incident was Ben Shapiro, known for being a political commenter.

“We brought in huge security forces to make sure he could speak and indeed he did speak, and left successfully,” Christ said.

Afterward, the university tried to give Yiannopoulos another opportunity to speak on campus, which he ended up only using as a ploy to gain social media attention. At the time, Yiannopoulos was scheduled to return to campus for a student organization-sponsored event he described as a “free speech week,” which would have been five days of free speech with an extensive lineup of guest speakers.

“We were really trying to prepare and be careful, but as the days got closer some very strange things started to happen,” Christ said.

She explained that the student group that was sponsoring the “free speech week” never signed  contracts for meeting rooms or paid any deposits. Then, Yiannopoulos published on his website the list of speakers slotted to appear on campus. This prompted phone calls from some of the speakers saying they had seen their names on the list, but didn’t know how they could have been signed up.

“This was very curious, so we decided to play a game of chicken, and my hunch, which turned out to be right, is that Milo Yiannopoulos didn’t really want to put on this event,” Christ said. “In fact, he hadn’t even prepared to put on this event. He wanted us to cancel it, so we did not cancel the event.”

Christ shared her observation about the situation, contrasting Shapiro and his intentions to that of Yiannopoulos.

“Ben Shapiro wanted to come to an auditorium,” Christ said. “He wanted to speak, he wanted to have an audience hear him. Milo Yiannopoulos had no such intention. What he wanted to do was create a social media splash about Berkeley not allowing him to speak, and by calling his bluff, he would then have succeeded.”

To promote positive change and encourage conversations, Christ formed a free speech commission, which held weeks upon weeks of hearings discussing the subject with the campus community. She said she thinks this was the right move, and that the group often came to insightful conclusions. However, she said, the commission is still necessary and conversations should continue.

“One of the interesting things about institutions of higher education is that the student population changes every four years,” Christ said. “Even if those students in 2017 and 2018 absorbed the campus dialogue, the students in 2024 are strangers to it and so there are some things that you have to keep repeating.”

Photo courtesy The Huntington / Carol Christ and Karen Lawrence


Lawrence posed a question to Christ relating to her position on institutional neutrality and how she navigates her approach to certain issues.

“I think, for the most part, institutional neutrality is a good position for the leaders of universities to take,” Christ responded. “I don’t think someone in my position should be opining about every situation in the United States or internationally that occurs. … You don’t want a leader of an institution to appear to be taking sides with one part of his or her community and not another. In other words, making a statement about your opinion inevitably excludes some people, makes them feel less welcome, makes them feel like their views have less value in the eyes of the institution.”

Though Christ said she is supportive of institutional neutrality, she clarified that it isn’t the correct standpoint in every situation.

“I think there are times when something happens that so strikes to the heart of the country, like the murder of George Floyd, for example, where not to speak out seems, to me, to suggest a lack of a moral compass,” Christ said. “So, I believe for the most part, institutional neutrality serves you well, but there are some instances in which the moral urgency seems to demand a response. I would also like to make an exception for issues that are immediate to higher education.”

She also said an institution’s leader must be clear in their message and for whom they are speaking.

“Sometimes I speak about things that happened on campus and really invoke the values of the institution, like when it comes to an act of bigotry, for example,” Christ said. “Other times, I speak in my own voice, and I try to be very clear that it is my own voice.”

One example Christ gave was when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision protecting a woman’s right to abortion nationwide. That ruling led her to write a letter to the campus about what Roe v. Wade had meant to her on a personal level, as well as her career as a woman and how she felt in the moment. In her letter, Christ said she aimed to be transparent in the fact that she was speaking for herself, from her own experience, and not on behalf of UC Berkeley.

Christ’s letter read in part: “I belong to a generation of women who came of age when birth control was legalized and when abortion was decriminalized. The freedom I have enjoyed to leave home after high school, chase my educational dreams, plan my family, and pursue a career was possible because of the rights enshrined in the Roe v. Wade decision that gave women full liberty and, effectively, a new and rightful place in society. We became inventors, doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists, scholars, and more. …

“It’s unimaginable to me that the freedoms enjoyed by a generation of women will not be shared by my granddaughters. Or, moreover, by our students, staff and faculty, all of whom deserve the same right to self-determination that I and so many others have enjoyed.”

Another poignant instance she highlighted was when the leaders of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were questioned by members of Congress to testify about their school’s responses to antisemitism amid campus protests relating to a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023.

The three women — Claudine Gay of Harvard, Liz Magill of Penn and Sally Kornbluth of MIT — were widely criticized for how they answered. In the moment Christ said she believes the women may have misinterpreted the line of questioning.

“It was very troubling, to me, that they asked three brand-new women presidents,” Christ said. “I wondered to myself, a lot, what if they had asked more experienced presidents of an Ivy League or one of the male presidents. Would the dynamics have been the same?

“I also felt that they mistook the nature of the occasion and thought they were walking into a deposition and were very well counseled about the legal aspects of the situation, and I think they made a strategic mistake in how they responded,” said Christ, noting that more experienced leaders can seek advice and try to make their case out of the public arena.

In the same vein of freedom of speech, Lawrence and Christ went on to discuss Title VI and Title IX, which guarantees everyone the right to a learning environment that is “equal and equitable.”

Christ said there’s a “tension of laws” existing in that notion, and has heard from many students who’ve expressed that they don’t feel safe on campus, which she finds “puzzling.”

“The campus is a pretty safe place,” Christ said. “I really don’t think they are physically unsafe, but the world of social media — even the casual world of social interaction — doesn’t feel safe to them. … Students on each side think the crisis is existential to them. That the other side is denying them something that is essential to their identity.”

Growing up, Christ remembered a saying that she thinks no longer applies: “Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

“We’re in a world now where people feel very strongly that names can hurt, and that, of course, is very much in conflict with the guarantees of free speech,” Christ said.

“Yes, free speech is an absolute, but it’s not sufficient. What you have to think about is the impact the words are going to have on the community. What I say to students is, ‘Just because you have the right to say something, doesn’t mean it’s right to say it.’ … One of the things our country has lost, and I feel so sad about this, is the capacity to have respectful disagreement with people who have very different views than your own.”


Looking to the future of free speech online, Christ shared her view on the policy being crafted by the UC Board of Regents that aims to limit political speech on university websites.

Christ said the policy would restrict homepages of websites from publishing language considered political. However, those messages would be allowed elsewhere on the website.

“I, myself, don’t believe this is a wise policy, because I think the line between political and an apolitical speech is not so easy to draw,” Christ said. “So, if the African American Studies Department, for example, says ‘Black lives matter,’ is that a political statement? Can they say that on their website? If the Women’s Studies Department says ‘We believe in gender equity,’ is that a political statement?”

The UC Board of Regents is set to vote on the policy in May.

As Christ moves closer to her retirement in June, she said she’ll miss the people she has met along the way — students, colleagues and many others.

“It’s the people that are the joyous parts of my job,” Christ said.

First published in the April 18 issue of the San Marino Tribune


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