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Christopher Edley, Prominent Legal Scholar, Passes Away

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Christopher Edley Jr., a prominent legal and public policy scholar who co-founded the Harvard Civil Rights Project with Dr. Gary Orfield, died over the weekend. He was 71.Christopher Edley Jr.Christopher Edley Jr.

“Chris Edley was a smart, caring, determined advocate for justice who could move easily and powerfully through the mazes of top levels of law, politics, and research,” said Orfield, who is Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA Graduate School of Education and co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

“Working with him to create the Civil Rights Project was fascinating,” Orfield told Diverse.  “He could take a complicated, heated, and many-sided debate and go right to the essence of the problem and, seemingly without effort, come out with the three basic points and a suggestion about how to move forward, while easing the tension with a great sense of humor. Gone far too soon.” 

Edley spent more than two decades as a professor at Harvard Law School, where he and Orfield founded the Civil Rights Project in the aftermath of a 1996 court ruling that squelched race-conscious admission policies at many universities. The case stemmed from a reverse affirmative action lawsuit filed by white student Cheryl Hopwood, who was denied admission to the University of Texas law school. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled against the UT practices.

In 2004, Edley joined UC Berkely as dean of the law school, but stepped down from the role in 2013 and took a medical leave to battle prostate cancer. He returned as the Honorable William H. Orrick, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law and, in 2016, co-founded Opportunity Institute with Ann O’Leary, who served as chief of staff to California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Berkeley-based nonprofit organization promotes social equity through education, using a cradle-to-career reach across four distinct demographic groups.

A graduate of Swarthmore College, Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Law School, Edley served as an advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He also held senior positions in five presidential campaigns, serving as policy director for Michael Dukakis; and senior policy adviser for Al Gore, Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. In 1993, he was a senior economic adviser in the Clinton presidential transition, responsible for housing and regulation of financial institutions. In 2008, he was a board member for the Obama presidential transition with general responsibility for healthcare, education, and immigration.

Edley was married to Maria Echaveste, the former deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

“Chris Edley hired me @BerkeleyLaw and totally changed my life,” Melissa Murray, the Frederick I. and Grace Stokes Professor of Law at New York University Law, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “He was a beloved mentor and friend who believed completely in the transformative power of education. This is an unimaginable loss—for Berkeley and all of us who loved and admired him.” 

In 2012, Diverse honored Edley and Orfield with the Dr. John Hope Franklin Award, the annual recognition for excellence in higher education named after the pioneering Black historian.

Dr. Stella Flores, a professor of higher education and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, was hired as a graduate student at the Harvard Civil Rights Project in 2001.

I chose Harvard because of the unique partnership he and Gary Orfield had created around policy, law and civil rights, said Flores. That union trained generations of students on how to interrogate and operationalize equity principles in research, policy and law in real time. 

Flores said that Edley's energy and optimism was unparalleled when it came to finding the right angle for solutions.

I’ll never forget how, in times of what seemed like despair to students and the general audience, he would say, 'Listen, you think we have it bad, imagine how bad our parents and grandparents had it, and those before them. Look where we are now. We will move through this'.

Edley took a personal interest in those with whom he interacted. 

"Chris would look at you like you had the most important thing in the world to say when he gave you his attention, said Flores. I remember this look did not change toward me, from when I was a graduate student and stumbled over my words talking to this very important policy person to when I was a tenured professor serving with him on a National Academies panel on equity metrics in U.S. schools." 

Edley's life example of jumping from the Academy to the White House "and every influential policy and research circle in the U.S. remains a model of service and impact for so many of us," said Flores. "My deepest condolences to all who are grieving. This is a deep loss." 


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