Chancellor's Convocation Address - Fall 2018

The following address was delivered on Monday, August 20, 2018:


Welcome to the freshmen, the Class of 2022!

Welcome to the transfer students, the Class of 2020!

My name is Carol Christ, and as chancellor it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the University of California, Berkeley, and to the next chapter of your lives.

When I began my career here, now decades ago, it was you—the students of this extraordinary university—who made me fall in love with this campus. Each of you has a different story about how you came to this place, at this moment in time; your lives and experiences add to Berkeley’s rich mosaic. I’d like to begin my today by telling you a little bit about yourselves.

First, there are 8,800 of you joining our campus this fall—6,100 freshmen and 2,700 transfer students. The youngest of you is 15; the eldest is 63.

You come from 50 counties in California, 50 U.S. states and territories, and 70 countries from around the world.

81% of the new undergraduates in your class join us from public high schools. 93% of new transfer students come from California’s exceptional community colleges.

Just under a fifth of you are the first in your families to attend any college or university.

Among those in your class are:

  • A student who taught microfinance to women in rural India, and helped create a local banking system there
  • A long-distance runner who has competed in 12 marathons—including a 62-mile ultramarathon in the Texas desert
  • A transfer student who grew up a refugee, unable to attend school…but who taught herself math and Farsi before going on to community college
  • A student who took up the sport of boxing to lose weight….and ended up becoming a national champion
  • An entrepreneur who founded a global nonprofit that seeks to help young people fight mental health stigmas
  • A student born partly deaf, with a progressive condition, who despite this took up the cello and has now performed in Carnegie Hall 10 times; and
  • A formerly incarcerated woman of color in her 60s who struggled with dyslexia and hearing loss…yet has managed to excel in her job, changing the way the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency manages its waste stream and saving the organization tens of thousands of dollars a year.

We are so happy to have all of you here at Berkeley.

You are joining our community at an auspicious time, for 2018 marks our institution’s sesquicentennial. 150 years ago, Governor Henry Haight signed an act envisioning a great public university for the state of California that would provide the children of teachers, farmers, and factory workers with an education they had previously only dreamed about. In doing so, he brought into being one of the most extraordinary academic institutions that has ever existed—a place where researchers would discover new chemical elements, and new cures for diseases, where social movements would begin, and where we would ask, and answer, questions fundamental to our understanding of the world.

In the years since its founding in 1868, UC has grown from 40 students on a parcel of land in the east bay to 10 university campuses educating nearly 300,000 students—not to mention several medical centers, national labs, and a network of resource centers serving Californians across the state. Today, the University—with Berkeley as its shining star—is the envy of every other system of public higher education in the world. UC has given great strength to California, its economy, and its people…and we are so thrilled to have you join us as the newest members of this important and historic community.

While our founders certainly viewed the Berkeley campus as a special place when they chose this location to be the early home of the University, they were not the first to recognize, settle into, or celebrate the land that we have the privilege of standing on today. The land on which our campus sits is also known as Huichin, and it is the ancestral and unceded land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, successors of the Verona Band of Alameda County. We recognize the continued importance of the Berkeley campus to today’s Ohlone, and strive to be the best stewards of the land that we can be.

As you settle into your lives here, I am sure your new friends, your resident assistants, GBO coordinators, and others will have many pieces of advice for you…and I hope you’ll hear them out. I too have a piece of advice that I’d like to share with you today.

Students who come to Berkeley are among the very best in their high school or community college classes—and the hard work that this requires deserves much praise. Yet striving to be the best can sometimes trick us into sticking to what we’re good at…and shying away from unfamiliar challenges.  Simply put, we’re afraid to fail.

I urge you not to fall into the trap of thinking that failure is always a bad thing. Being unsuccessful in your lab experiment, missing the mark on an essay in a new class, losing in a new sport, coming up short on an unfamiliar project…these can be difficult experiences, but they build resilience and courage. Ask any scientist, the road to discovery is full of failed attempts.  Taking risks brings new ideas into our lives. Furthermore, within failure is room for the most growth. As Samuel Beckett famously said: “Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again…fail better.”

College is about much more than your transcript.  Think of yourself not as a student merely completing assignments to your professor’s specification, but an adventurer, a discoverer primed to try new things, adopt new approaches.

Berkeley is as great a place as any I know to facilitate such discovery. There is no issue important to humankind or to the planet—from climate change, to curing cancer, to our country’s struggles with mass incarceration—that Berkeley faculty members are not trying to solve. Act on your curiosity in selecting your courses.

Beyond your classes, you can explore the richness of Berkeley in so many ways: by participating in our Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, joining one of the country’s top-ranked debate teams, becoming a member of the largest student housing cooperative in the nation, founding a company at one of the school’s several startup incubators, performing in one of our music or theater groups, and much more. Maybe your experience here will take you far past the edges of our campus itself—through study abroad, an internship, or a service-learning Alternative Break. It is my hope that we’ll soon be able to formalize a system in which every student will participate in a culminating capstone experience of this kind.

Outside of Berkeley’s academic and co-curricular ecosystem, your thirst for discovery should extend to the kinds of people you surround yourself with. For many of you, this place will be the most diverse community you’ve ever experienced. It will stretch you, intellectually and emotionally, but I urge you to embrace such diversity and build connections with people who are far removed from those you know now. To do this, you’ll need to work on developing your capacity for empathy—learning to see with different eyes, putting yourself in others’ shoes. 

The need for empathy is also tied to an issue that you likely heard about when you were applying for admission here last fall—that is, Berkeley’s commitment to free speech, and appearances by several high-profile speakers on our campus in 2017. I’d like to close my remarks by saying a few words about that.

Free speech—the public expression of sharply divergent points of view—is critical to diversity, fundamental indeed both to our democracy and to our mission as a university. A commitment to freedom of speech has been a particularly valued part of the Berkeley culture since the the free speech movement of the 1960s.  Particularly now, it is critical for the Berkeley community to protect this right; it is who we are.  That protection involves not just defending your right to speak, or the right of those you agree with, but also defending the right to speak by those you disagree with, even those whose views you find abhorrent.  This is not easy.  It can conflict with the values we hold as a community.  You may feel, as I sometimes do, that some speech attacks your very identity.  However, the right response is not the heckler’s veto, or what some call, platform denial.  Call it out for what it is, don’t shout it down, for in shouting it down you collude in their narrative—that universities are not open to all speech.  We respond to hate speech with more speech.  As my colleague, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman has written, “Hate speech is like mold: Its enemies are bright light and fresh air.”

Alongside our commitment to free speech, we at Berkeley are also strongly dedicated to ensuring the safety of our community, and to fostering an environment where all members of the campus feel respected and valued. When these two commitments come into conflict, as they did last fall, it requires much collective soul-searching: All of last year, as a campus, we explored the tensions between free speech and community through faculty panels, mediated dialogues, film screenings, on-campus debates, and a commission that studied the issues at stake. We will continue examining these complex subjects in the coming year as well, as they are foundational to our campus as well as extremely important in our national politics.

Now, let me now close my remarks by simply offering you my warmest welcome to Berkeley—a place where we readily take on and examine thorny issues like free speech in the modern era...just as we extend the boundaries of science, seek a more profound understanding of history, create and critique art, rethink societal norms, develop new ideas, found new companies, and cultivate our own best selves so that we can go out and change the world.

After a long and competitive admissions process, you may feel that you are lucky to be here. We feel as a university we are lucky to have you. You are bringing to the Berkeley community remarkable intelligence, energy, ambition, resilience, creativity, curiosity, and an eagerness to challenge the status quo and reimagine the future. You will stimulate and energize our entire university, and we are thrilled to have you shape Berkeley even as it shapes you.

Thank you, and thank you as well to all of the Golden Bear Orientation advisors and orientation leaders, new student services team members, GBO steering committee…everyone who has been hard at work to make sure you get a great start on campus. We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the great journey of personal and intellectual discovery that awaits you.

Welcome to Berkeley. Fiat lux, and Go Bears!