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A conversation with Berkeley's new law school dean, Christopher Edley Jr.

On Dec. 11, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl announced the selection of Harvard law professor and civil rights scholar Christopher Edley Jr. as the new dean of the university’s School of Law (Boalt Hall). Following the announcement, reporters were invited to participate in a conference call with Edley, who was in New York. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

In addition to Edley and Berdahl, participants include Boalt Hall interim dean Robert Berring, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs George Strait, and reporters from several news outlets including the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News, and San Francisco Chronicle.

 Christopher Edley Jr.
Christopher Edley Jr.

BERDAHL: Well thank you all very much for joining us and, Chris, welcome aboard. This is really a very important day for Berkeley and for Boalt Hall. As I have said, I think this is an appointment of singular importance to us because it really does reinforce our commitment to providing California and the nation with exceptional leadership in our law school with a person who is nationally recognized as a leader in issues dealing with social justice and the law. So we’re enormously thrilled and excited to have Chris Edley joining Boalt Hall as its new dean.

What became very clear from our earliest conversations was that Chris understands and embraces the unique role of Boalt Hall as a premier public university law school and that as such, it can and it must play a leading role in helping shape the public agenda. That this must be a law school, as a public law school, that is inclusive, that is accessible, that educates and trains the brightest minds of the next generation of leaders and that it educates them, really, in the issues of the day as they pertain to the law and society.

And, finally, let me just say that here on campus this morning, as the word of this appointment gets out, we’re already beginning to feel this enormous groundswell of excitement and energy that he can generate. I would simply say that I have gotten e-mails this morning from members of the staff, secretaries and people in the Physical Plant who have applauded this appointment because they have heard of Chris Edley, because they know what he stands for, and they’re overjoyed that in appointing him, Berkeley has made this exceptional choice of a leader so there’s excitement throughout the ranks at the university and I think we’re just delighted.

EDLEY: I can’t thank you enough for those kind words of welcome. The chancellor stated quite well my sense of what the charge is. And, frankly, the challenges facing higher education in California and facing the law school in particular, were a substantial part of the attraction in bringing me to this job. I have a colleague at Harvard who grew up in the Bay Area and said he has long felt that Boalt Hall law school should be the best law school on the planet because why would you want to live anywhere else? And I think the pre-eminence of the university provides a base upon which to build a law school that is second to none, not only in the quality of the students and the training, not only in the caliber of the intellectual product— the research— produced by the faculty, but also in terms of the delivery of intellectual capital and service to the public at the large.

A great public law school, as the chancellor suggested, should be immediately and powerfully engaged in tackling the toughest problems that are facing the public sector and the private sector in California, in the nation, and in the world. Boalt is poised to play that role in a way that will stand out from the rest of the top law schools in the country, and I’m very proud, very proud, that the faculty, the chancellor, that everyone there at Berkeley has placed such confidence in me.

STRAIT: Bob Berring, would you like to say a few words?

BERRING: Well, I would just like to say how excited everybody is at the law school about this. The students are currently taking final exams but you can still feel the electricity in the hallway. I think Chris is the right person for this job at this time in history. I think it’s going to be great for Boalt Hall, I think it’s going to be great for the University for California, and I think it’s going to be good for the state of California. The only thing that I would wish to amend is that I think he’s going to make us the best law school in the solar system. I wouldn’t limit it to the planet.


STRAIT: (To reporters) Questions? …

REPORTER: Professor (Edley)…I wonder if you have any specific ideas for—I don’t want to use the word “improving,” but maybe that’s the only word—improving the California political climate with respect to just even recognition of racial issues…

EDLEY: Right. Well I think that in a way this gets back to the point that the chancellor made about the mission of a great public university and specifically a law school. I certainly believe that on the many issues of—race among them—that on many issues what we can provide is the intellectual capital that will inform political discussion and public discourse; that by providing research-based insights into present conditions and trends—we’ve got a conviction that comes with the job description [as academics] that research and evidence will lead to better decision making. So, I’m not coming there to wage a policy campaign or political campaign. I am coming there to try to work with the faculty at Boalt to inject the best ideas possible into the challenges facing the state and the nation.

REPORTER: To follow up on that, what are your thoughts on how to recruit more students of color and students of different ethnic backgrounds and …(in) a climate where it’s against the law (for California public institutions) to use affirmative action?

EDLEY: Very fortunately Boalt has now, through the excellent work—the very hard work—of faculty, staff, administrators and students, we’ve recovered now in terms of the diversity of the student body to the levels preceding the Regents’ policy and Prop 209. The challenge that I face is to work with people to preserve that gain. And it’s an absolutely critical challenge because I believe quite adamantly as the (U.S.) Supreme Court recognized this past June in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases, that inclusion, diversity, is an ingredient of excellence when it’s done properly, and that it is central to the mission of a great university, especially a public university. So, we’re not going to let that goal stray out of the cross hairs. We are going to focus on it intently to make sure we don’t lose ground.

There’s no question in my mind that without affirmative action, without race-sensitive affirmative action, the task is more difficult, but I am optimistic that we can continue at least at the law school to do what we need in order to have the excellence we require.

REPORTER: Professor Edley, you are becoming the first African-American dean of a major American law school, as was noted in the press release. Maybe you can talk to us a little about the significance you see in that.

EDLEY: Part of it is personal of course, and I think that beyond that, the reality is that these top-tier law schools are important gatekeeper institutions to the highest levels of the private sector and the public sector. We produce community leaders and institutional leaders. We hope of course that the leadership of an institution or a law school helps to create the set of values and the priorities that then infuse the training that the students receive and their personal sense of mission. So my hope certainly is that I can bring—that some of me, if you will, that some of me will become Boalt. That’s usually the case with institutional leaders and in that respect, I think it’s important that the leadership of key institutions, like law schools, reflect the diversity that’s America, so that the leaders and the values …that those institutions produce will reflect America.

REPORTER: With regards to the civil rights project that you co-founded at Harvard, how do you envision creating the west coast version of that? What will it do here?

EDLEY: Well, part of my due diligence in deciding about this job was to request a meeting with faculty on campus, who might be interested in working on the Civil Rights Project at Berkeley. And, quite frankly, I was overwhelmed by the number of faculty not simply at Boalt, but campuswide, who turned out for the meeting. I mean people sitting on the floor in the conference room and messages from many, many others, regretting that they weren’t able to attend the meeting. The overwhelming sense that I got is that there are literally scores of faculty, who would be eager to work with me in creating a West Coast version of the Civil Rights Project.

And indeed, in many respects, Berkeley is more suited to it than Harvard because Berkeley as an institution is far more welcoming of the kind of interdisciplinary cutting-edge work that is so critical to understanding the challenges of racial and ethnic justice. I think that in many respects, building a Civil Rights Project at Berkeley is going to be one of the easier challenges I face, and I am very eager to get started. Part of my decision also involved becoming confident that the project at Harvard was going to flourish without me, and the president of Harvard, the dean of the law school, my colleague Gary Orfield, who is the co-director there . . . the reassurances have been complete and compelling. So I think we will be bigger, better, and bicoastal.

REPORTER: One of the things that you mentioned in the press release was raising the rankings of this school. Now it’s at 10. If you believe anything with these U.S. News and World Report rankings, how are you going to get back up to say top five. I mean describe some of the things you will do to do that.

EDLEY: Well, first I want to emphasize that the rankings I am paying attention to are the rankings about things that we care about, which, which may in some important respects deviate from the way U.S. News calculates them. But, with that stipulation, let me try to answer your question.

The quality of the student body as far as I can tell is every bit as superb as one could possibly hope for. Similarly, the faculty has enormous strength, and it therefore seems to me our challenge is to expand the faculty in particular, identifying a handful of areas where either there is current strength that we can deepen, or where there are real targets of opportunity to commit Boalt to make a distinctive contribution. For example, Latin America and Asia come to mind on that score. I’m also very interested in working with the faculty to substantially grow the size of the non-faculty research staff, so that people who do not have faculty appointments can be engaged in the research enterprise and we’re leveraging the intellectual leadership of top scholars to produce more knowledge and to also enrich the teaching and training that we do.

And finally, I think we become pre-eminent, as I suggested before, by being very self-conscious about the importance of delivering that intellectual product into public discourse and private practice. By not simply producing valuable knowledge about the environment, about racial justice, about international economic trade, but also putting those ideas into the minds and hands of people in the real world, who are trying to solve tough problems. I think that if we put those things together, we can take the excellence already at Boalt and make it shine even brighter.

REPORTER: How are you going to do these things in the current budget climate with funding as it is?

EDLEY: I’m going to raise a lot of money. First and foremost, I’m going to work with the faculty and senior administrators to launch a planning process for a major fund-raising campaign within the next few weeks, not months. The strategic planning for this is not going to await my full-time arrival in July. But second, I hope to have an opportunity to work with the chancellor and the provost to help make the case to the broader public in California that the UC system in general, and Berkeley in particular, deserves the continuing and vigorous support of the public. I think that if we articulate a vision for Boalt of pre-eminence in the way I’ve described, we’ll be able to persuade alumni and others that it’s worth not only their enthusiastic support but their generous investment.

REPORTER: It was mentioned in the press release that you’ve had other opportunities to become a dean at other schools and turned them down and I wondered, in light of what you said today, that the opportunity to explore Latin America and Asian issues and topics… Was that the turning point for you, in terms of the decisive point for you in terms of coming to Cal?

EDLEY: First, let me just clarify. I have not turned down any other deanships because I never allowed them to pursue me. I always summarily rejected the inquiries when they first appeared.

What happened at Boalt is that someone on the search committee called me, asked me if I was willing to be considered, and I said, “No.” This was last spring. Then she said, “Well do you mean that there is absolutely no circumstance under any conceivable situation, in which you would consider even remotely the possibility of…” At which point, I said, “Well, look, I mean, sure leave my name in the hat.”

When they called back midsummer and were more serious, I agreed to meet with the search committee because I was going to be in San Francisco doing fund raising anyway. But when I met with the search committee for the first time in September, their presentation of the challenges and opportunities at Boalt, was simply so compelling that my interest in the job jumped from maybe 2 percent to 50 percent right then. And it just continued to climb as the fall went on.

I would say that the central arguments that made it of interest to me were first the notion that the mission of a superb public law school is somehow different, must be different from the mission of an elite private school. That caught my imagination…The second is that they pointed out that California is ground zero for the racial and ethnic transformation of the country, and that Berkeley and Boalt should be leading the nation in engaging those questions thoughtfully. And their sense was that I was an ideal person to help with that leadership, which was flattering and very attractive. And finally, to be candid, the fact that the school and the university face fiscal pressures, to understate it, means that it’s a tough job. And that too was part of the attraction.

REPORTER: You mentioned one of your priorities would be to put the research and the ideas of the university into the hands of the policy makers so that they can have an engagement with the public policy-making process. But how do you propose to do that?

EDLEY: Well, there are many devices that I can imagine, but, and certainly this is something that has to be worked through closely with the involvement of the faculty. But let me just give you three points. First is, when you produce high-quality research that is relevant to important issues facing the public sector or the private sector, it’s obviously important in the academic sense to publish it. But it’s also important if you want to have an impact to think about more aggressive dissemination strategies that will put the ideas, translated into user-friendly form, in the hands of people who can use those ideas. Second, I think that you can use the convening power of a great university, such as Boalt, to pull together researchers and public and private leaders to engage each other and tease out the implications of research for practice. And I believe that an aggressive program of doing that will not only raise Boalt’s profile, but help put the intellectual capital Boalt generates to immediate use in the private and public spheres. And, thirdly, I think we’ve got to do more…to bring people from outside the campus on to the campus directly to work with our students and to work with our faculty to forge shared agendas for investigation and debate. If we can do a set of things of that sort then I think the connection between the important first-rate intellectual work that happens on campus and the hard challenges outside the campus… that connection can be tighter and can be more exciting than it is today.

STRAIT: Chris, thank you for your time. Bob and Bob thank you for your times. And to my colleagues in the press, thank you for your very thoughtful questions and your time as well.