‘A New Mountain to Climb’As the new dean of UC-Berkeley’s law school, Christopher Edley Jr. plans to continue the civil rights and social justice agenda work for which he has become well knownOn July 1, Christopher Edley Jr. became the dean of the University of California-Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law. The first African American to hold the deanship of California’s premier public law school, Edley brings to the job an array of accomplishments and experiences few American law school deans can match. Having just departed Harvard Law School where he had been a professor since 1981, Edley intends to further the civil rights and social justice agenda work for which he has become well known. Essential to the civil rights portfolio Edley brings to Boalt Hall is support from the U.C.-Berkeley leadership to establish a West Coast version of the Civil Rights Project. The Civil Rights Project (CRP) is the Harvard-based think tank co-founded by Edley and Dr. Gary Orfield in 1996 to conduct research and assess the prospects for justice and equal opportunity under the law for racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.
Edley’s political experiences owing to appointments in the Carter and Clinton administrations, as well as stints in the Carter presidential campaign, the Dukakis presidential campaign, and the Clinton-Gore presidential transition team, stand to fortify him for the ongoing struggles and challenges in the post-Proposition 209 environment in California higher education. During the Clinton administration, Edley held a series of positions, including associate director for economics and government at the White House Office of Management and Budget. He served as a senior adviser to Clinton’s Race Initiative and led the White House review of affirmative action programs as the president’s special counsel. Edley is also a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an appointment he has held since 1999. He is the author of Not All Black & White: Affirmative Action, Race and American Values. Edley’s father, the late Christopher Edley Sr., was a former head of the United Negro College Fund.
Recently, Edley took time in the midst of preparations to move his family from the East Coast to California to speak with Black Issues In Higher Education.BI: Do you plan to continue your involvement with the Civil Rights Project? How so? Will there be a UC Berkeley-based operation of the Civil Rights Project?CEJ: Absolutely. In fact, at one point during the dean search process I called to withdraw from consideration, explaining that I was too committed to the work of the Civil Rights Project to walk away from it. Their response was that they already thought about that and were very excited about the prospect of my building a West Coast analog of the project based at Berkeley. As soon as they said that, it seemed like an obvious and ideal fit. Where better to try to help lead the national debate over the future of racial justice than California, which is, in so many ways, ground zero for all the changes sweeping the country? My partner, (Dr.) Gary Orfield hit the phrase just right: “We expect to be bigger, better, and bi-coastal.”BI: Do you have specific ideas as to how you will organize a West Coast CRP? CEJ: It’s still a work in progress. But as I was doing my due diligence, deciding whether to accept the offer, I was frankly overwhelmed by the number of faculty at the law school and around the broader campus who expressed eagerness to work with me to establish a West Coast CRP. My guess is we will begin to work on opportunity issues in higher education and K-12, but move quickly into voting rights, criminal justice and perhaps health care.
I think the West Coast work, like the Harvard-based work, will have a national scope but we will add a specific emphasis on California and Southwest issues. BI: Your appointment is said to be an historic one. Do you see your appointment as historic? CEJ: It’s certainly a step. I would leave to others the judgment of whether it’s a big one or a small one. The people in California have emphasized to me that they think the Boalt deanship will provide a platform for addressing research and policy issues of particular concern to minority communities.
I think there are opportunities to help provide a rallying point for the scores of people interested and active already in providing leadership on this set of issues. I hope that indeed as I raise money to try to secure the law school’s future, I will also be able to find the resources to build CRP to a level that we’ve only thought about wistfully thus far. BI: Do you think your appointment can be considered symbolic in light of Proposition 209 and its impact on diversity in the University of California system? Is it possible to improve the UC-Berkeley law school’s attractiveness to underrepresented minorities as students and faculty members? CEJ: On one level, my appointment is ironic because I am so deeply committed to the value of inclusion, diversity and affirmative action. I think that a West Coast CRP can help mobilize the important social science and legal research not only to help sustain policy debates around the country, but ultimately to help inform the debate in California with the inevitable reconsideration of Prop 209 getting on the political agenda.
Meanwhile, by focusing on maintaining the inclusivity of the law school by having teaching and research engage these issues that are so critical to the state and the nation, I think that our profile on social justice issues will rise measurably. And our ability to not only continue to attract the best students, but also attract faculty and collaborators from other institutions will be multiplied as we get geared up.
Civil rights will be only one of several subject matter areas that will get a lot of attention from me as dean, but it is obviously the one nearest and dearest to my heart.
Let me add one other piece regarding Hispanics. I’ve been struck for some time by the failure of East Coast institutions, beginning with Harvard, to effectively engage the opportunity agenda that faces Latinos in the U.S. I think CRP at Berkeley, working with other institutions that are already tackling these problems, can help raise the visibility nationally and attract resources to tackle those opportunity issues in a way East Coast institutions have largely failed to do.
It’s also an unique opportunity to think through and implement strategies for Black-Brown cooperation and collaboration.BI: What are going to be your chief priorities as the new dean of one of the nation’s top law schools?CEJ: One of the challenges has to do with the mission of top-ranked public education. The people in California for a quarter of a century now have been slowly and now precipitously disinvesting in public education at all levels from K-12 all the way up to professional schools. In my view, it is reaching a crisis level for the professional schools. It’s obviously been that way for some years now in K-12.
My immediate challenge is to make the case for sustaining and indeed enhancing the excellence of Berkeley’s law school by preventing the state from turning it into a profit center to cross-subsidize the rest of the state budget, while at the same time freeing us to raise the resources from alumni and others to compete with the best private law schools. Berkeley has the base and Boalt has the tradition to enable us to do that, so I’m cautiously optimistic.
Beyond students, the second challenge is to expand the faculty and the research endeavor, and in particular to take advantage of the receptivity of the Berkeley campus to multidisciplinary work. That’s one reason why CRP, for example, is likely to thrive at Berkeley. It’s the kind of intellectual undertaking that most universities have difficulty with because we attempt to bridge the divisions between departments and disciplines.
Third and finally, I think that excellence in teaching and research has to be brought to bear on some of the toughest problems facing California, the nation and indeed the world. Part of our mission as a leading public institution is to produce value in not just the long run or an abstract way, but in an immediate and observable way. Lawyers are problem solvers, and I think that means our teaching and research, at least in part, (should) be focused on the hardest problems there are because those are the places where we need our best talent. BI: What do you see as your strengths in terms of your experiences and talents?CEJ: Well, the search committee could be a better source on this. I can tell you that I think the financial challenges facing the school mean that I have to devote a substantial amount of my time to fund raising to maintain the inclusivity of the student body, to expand the research activity and the size of the faculty, to build a new building, to tackle major social policy questions — all of this requires resources. I don’t shrink from that challenge at all because many people don’t realize that this kind of fund raising, number one, has a tremendous amount of intellectual content because you are shaping the mission of an institution, you’re defining intellectual priorities and you’re persuading donors that your vision merits their enthusiastic support and investment.
So, it’s not in my experience a horribly painful form of begging. It has many positive dimensions to it.
A second aspect of the job that is exciting to me is that being dean of an outstanding faculty that is working on an enormous range of issues puts me first in line at a smorgasbord that is as rich and interesting as any on earth. In working with faculty to support their ambitions, and where possible elevate them, I have an opportunity for vicarious stimulation and accomplishment. Similarly with students, they were far and away the most enticing element of the Berkeley picture because of their dynamic engagement not only in their studies but in issues of the community and the world. They are enthusiastic about their education, about their institution, about their careers in a way that’s positively infectious. I frankly haven’t seen anything like it in all my years at Harvard, which started back in 1973 when I arrived there as a student. So their enthusiasm is another source of energy and, I hope, vicarious accomplishment.BI: How do you think your past experiences in presidential administrations and presidential political campaigns will matter to you in the deanship?CEJ: I think (they) will help me as dean in several respects. First, I’ve had a substantial amount of management experience and for too many people being dean is the first time they’ve had to manage anything, or to worry about a budget. Second, my own work in and out of government has involved so many different subject matter areas that I really have a good base upon which to draw in working with a wide range of faculty and student interests both in the law school and around the university. Third, while it’s going to take me some time to master the University of California bureaucracy, I do have a very experienced sense of how the outside world of politics and policy works. And to the extent that part of my mission is to deliver value to that outside world and make a difference on issues that matter to the private sector and the public sector, I think it’s fair to say that I have an edge on most academics in having some appreciation for knowing how to get that done.
Finally, the future of higher education in California depends upon how the university makes the case to the politicians and the people for its continued greatness, and I hope to be a part of making that case.BI: UC-Berkeley has been in the news over the decline of Black and Latino undergraduate admissions. How well is the law school faring with regard to the admissions of Black and Latino students? What’s being done to facilitate outreach efforts to underrepresented minorities? CEJ: The law school thankfully is holding its own thus far, but I don’t take that for granted, and I believe it’s going to take a lot of work to get where we want to be, particularly in light of the constraints imposed by Prop 209. The undergraduate situation is different and alarming. The drop of African American admittees this year foreshadows a similar drop with Latinos unless the campus takes aggressive action.
I’ve already been involved in a couple of discussions and meetings with a group established by the chancellor to brainstorm about strategies to address the problem. So I can tell you that there is very deep passionate commitment on the part of campus leaders with whom I’ve spoken to deal with this problem. It’s also an important early agenda item for the Civil Rights Project because thinking about why the drop has occurred and what strategies might be effective to counteract it are researchable questions. Getting the right answers is crucial because otherwise you may invest energy and resources solving the wrong problem. Is the difficulty with the admissions readers? With the high-school guidance counselors? With the targeting of the recruitment effort? With the image of the school in the minds of students? With the increasing cost of tuition? With some combination of the above? Or with some other factor altogether?
It’s important to bear in mind that the precipitous drop at Berkeley is only one element of a developing opportunity crisis in California higher education that runs from the flagship Berkeley campus all the way to the community colleges. BI: We’ve seen summer programs from the national medical schools’ association aimed at upgrading the academic skills of underrepresented minority undergraduates by reaching out to them as a national pool. Is it possible to develop a national program intended for underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged students who could benefit from summer programs to boost their skills for law school admissions and the law school experience? CEJ: Yes, absolutely. I know there are some people looking at that and I just saw a memo that the Law School Admissions Council is interested in exploring that.
I feel some ambivalence about this because it is certainly important to do a range of things to improve the situation in the pipeline, but there are two important caveats. First, the fact that the pipeline is broken does not absolve institutions of their responsibility to pursue excellence by being inclusive. In other words, they should be doing affirmative action until the pipeline is sufficiently repaired and affirmative action is no longer necessary, however long that takes and in the face of whatever impatience there might be from opponents of affirmative action.
Secondly, as we tackle problems of the pipeline it’s important in my mind not to turn this into a series of voluntary or charitable endeavors that amount to a Band-Aid to a system that’s fundamentally broken. Here’s what I mean: it is good; it is valuable; it is important to have tutoring programs for high- school students. But those programs are no substitute for thorough-going K-12 school reform that would treat a world-class education as a right rather than a charitable mission that institutions tag onto to their main business. So similarly, if high schools or colleges are failing to provide a pipeline of well-prepared applicants for law schools or medical schools you certainly need Band-Aids and bandages in the middle of a battle, an opportunity war, but at the same time we can’t let up the pressure to fix the more fundamental problems. And in California those problems are mountainous and they are all too frequently ignored because underrepresented minorities have less political clout than their numbers warrant. BI: If there were a national law school outreach program for minority and disadvantaged undergraduates, could UC-Berkeley play a role in such an effort?CEJ: Absolutely. I would be eager for us to participate in such an effort. Indeed, I think that part of our mission as a public institution would require us to be actively involved. Again, I don’t think that these are either or. We should be doing whatever we can both as a matter of voluntary activity, but also as a matter of research and policy advocacy to repair the pipeline and produce more and better opportunities.BI: What kind of tensions do you see with state-based public institutions becoming and maintaining programs that are ranked among the best in the nation while servicing the needs of its home state? CEJ: There’s definitely a bit of tension and it also goes to this question of how many out-of-state students you admit, and currently only about a third of the class is from outside California. And it’s been that way for quite some time. If the state continues to reduce its level of support, I think we may have to revisit the extent to which it’s appropriate to constrain the school’s admissions to focus on California rather getting the higher tuition that we charge out-of-state students. BI: What do you think you will miss most about Harvard?CEJ: I have a large number of friends and 30 years of memories, dating back from my student days. But part of this mid-life crisis was a decision that I want the next 25 years to be somewhat different from the past 25 years. And that means a different university, a different coast and also much less direct involvement in the D.C. world of day-to-day policy and politics.
Those are a lot of changes, but as Harvard’s president Larry Summers put it to me, “(You) just need a new mountain to climb,” with all the uncertainty and risk that that involves.
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