Why It Matters: A Conversation with Carol T. Christ

Posted on Tue., April 30, 2024 by Sandy Masuo
Two people sit in chairs on a stage in front of an audience. A large projection screen has two portraits and reads “Why It Matters: Carol T. Christ in Conversation with Karen R. Lawrence.”

Carol Christ (left), chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, engaged in a lively and wide-ranging conversation with Huntington President Karen Lawrence on April 10 in Rothenberg Hall. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The importance of empathy and the power of language emerged as recurring themes in a wide-ranging conversation earlier this month in Rothenberg Hall between Carol Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and Huntington President Karen Lawrence. Lawrence had invited Christ to The Huntington for a “Why It Matters” event, where issues of the day are examined in the context of the humanities. Christ and Lawrence’s conversation touched on many topics, including the dissolution of the Pac-12 collegiate athletic conference, the impact of digital technology on teaching and students, and the complex nature of free speech in the context of the Berkeley campus.

Christ, who will retire from her position at the end of June, shared insights from her long career at UC Berkeley and her seven years in the top position there, along with her 11-year stint as president of Smith College. The dialogue was topical and, at times, poignant. The two women, whose 35-year friendship imbued their exchanges with warm camaraderie, discussed their career parallels and addressed challenging questions with incisive intellect.

One of the highlights of the evening came toward the end when Lawrence asked Christ: “What’s something you used to firmly believe about which you’ve since changed your mind?” Christ responded: “I used to think free speech was an absolute because in the marketplace of ideas, the truth would always win out. I no longer believe in the marketplace of ideas, and I no longer believe the truth will win out. We all live in such media silos that there is no such thing anymore as the marketplace of ideas. I still think free speech is really important, but I no longer think the reason I thought it was important is true.”

Two people sit in chairs on a stage, with a large projection screen in the background.

“Sometimes I think of my job as storyteller-in-chief,” Christ said. “So much of being the head of an institution is telling stories. … And that’s one of the things literature teaches you.” Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

With respect to current free speech issues, Lawrence referred to the Chicago Principles, adopted by the University of Chicago in 2014. Intended to promote lively and fearless freedom of debate and speech, the principles also espouse a position of institutional neutrality. Yet, Lawrence observed, pressure is increasing for presidents of colleges and universities, and sometimes those of cultural institutions, to weigh in on controversial topics.

“For the most part, institutional neutrality is a good position for the leaders of universities to take,” Christ said. A leader who appears to be taking sides with one part of his or her community inevitably “excludes some people, makes them feel less welcome, makes them feel like their views have less value in the eyes of the institution. However, and this is where I depart from the Chicago Principles, I think there are times when something happens that so strikes to the heart of the country [that] not to speak out seems to me to suggest a lack of a moral compass.”

Christ expressed deep concern about students feeling physically unsafe on campus because of conflicts that they experience as existential in nature, feeling “that the other side is denying them something essential to their identity.” She added: “I think that’s the question more than physical safety. It’s more a kind of emotional safety.”

Christ lamented the narrow path that leaders today must navigate in a world that has become dramatically polarized and where people are increasingly averse to engaging with differing viewpoints in the type of discourse that leads to mutual understanding, if not agreement.

Two people sit in chairs on a stage. A large projection screen reads “Carol T. Christ in Conversation with Karen R. Lawrence.”

In addition to stressing the relevance of the humanities for students of both sciences and arts, Christ emphasized the importance of pursuing courses of study for love of the subject. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Respect for and understanding of others’ perspectives is one of the great benefits of a liberal arts education for students pursuing many disciplines, including the sciences. Lawrence recalled that during her tenure as dean of humanities at UC Irvine, some biology and engineering students would “sneak take” literature classes for the fresh perspectives the courses imparted. But they did not want their parents to know because of the perception that humanities do not lead to lucrative careers.

Christ cited Nobel Prize–winning chemist Thomas R. Cech, who argues that studying the arts and humanities benefits scientists because it encourages them to change their frames of reference. The study of history, social sciences, the arts, and humanities promotes an understanding of “the world in which we live and the places [that students’] careers are going to take them,” Christ said. “So, I think they can’t afford not to study the arts and humanities in terms of how well their educations are going to serve them.”

Lawrence and Christ attributed elements of successful leadership to their studies in the humanities. Before her Huntington presidency, Lawrence, a renowned James Joyce scholar, served as president of Sarah Lawrence College for 10 years and, before that, was dean of the School of Humanities at UC Irvine. She referred to key points that she had made during the Founders’ Day program in February about the value of Joyce’s explorations of the lives of ordinary people, noting that the substance of his fiction often emerges “between the lines” and that his novel Ulysses provides a lens through which readers gain “a glimpse into the interior lives of others.”

Christ, too, found her study of English literature to be an exceptional preparation for leadership. A specialist in Victorian literature, she characterized the novels of the period as explorations of the relationships between individuals and society. “And that’s the work that we do,” she said. “We’re in the business of [managing] these very complex communities in which … individuals are connected to those communities and to the society beyond … our individual institutions.”

Expand image A handwritten poem on beige paper.

Alfred Tennyson (1809–92), “Maud: portions of Part I” (HM 19496), page 1, 1855. Earlier in the day, Library curators showed Christ manuscripts by such Victorian poets as Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson—notably, the opening of Tennyson’s poem “Maud,” which Christ began to recite from memory. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Concerns about the cost of higher education and skepticism about whether it is a worthwhile investment have continued to make headlines, underscored by recent news stories about how the cost of attendance at Vanderbilt University is now around $100,000 a year. Lawrence commented that she “never anticipated that the value—not the price, but the value—of higher education would be under such contestation.”

Christ agreed, pinpointing the need to shift the narrative of higher education from a focus on excellence to an emphasis on its value to the broader community. She observed that “this goes against the grain for a lot of people at competitive institutions.”

Christ characterized skepticism over the worth of higher education as having more to do with feelings of exclusion than with the actual value of such learning. “What do you do when something’s closed to you?” she asked. “You devalue it. … People do need higher education, but we have to figure out a way to make it more available and to talk less about elitism and more about access.”

Two people sit in chairs on a stage.

Many of the points made during the “Why It Matters” program struck a chord with the responsive audience. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

For all the gravitas of the evening, the personal connection between the two women frequently added levity to the exchange, as when Lawrence kidded Christ about her failed first attempt at retirement in 2013. Christ had accepted a half-time appointment as the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, the post that was a precursor to her chancellorship.

“I remember you telling me that you were looking forward to returning to Berkeley and to taking a half-time appointment,” Lawrence said.

“Well, I clearly flunked retirement,” Christ responded. “But I intend to pass it on the next course.”

Two people stand together in front of a wall of art in primary colors.

Mutual admiration and a shared passion for education energized the dialogue between Carol Christ (left) and Karen Lawrence. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Watch a video of highlights from the “Why It Matters” event as well as the event in its entirety.

Sandy Masuo is the botanical content specialist at The Huntington.