The New York Times
Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1960s, Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the flagship law school of the University of California, learned early about racial discrimination. After all, his father, one of the few African-American graduates in Harvard Law School’s class of 1953, could not get a job in a Philadelphia law firm.
“They’d hired William T. Coleman from Harvard a couple of years earlier,” Mr. Edley recalled, referring to the former transportation secretary, and ardent defender of civil rights. “And they were waiting to see how that experiment worked out before hiring another one.”
Mr. Edley’s father went on to become a prosecutor in Philadelphia, then the first black program officer at the Ford Foundation and president of the United Negro College Fund. He was never, Mr. Edley said, bitter about the obstacles in his way. But civil rights and related subjects were the topics of discussion around the dinner table. From age 5, the son wanted to be a lawyer.
Now Mr. Edley, in his third year at Boalt Hall, as the law school here is known, finds himself defending affirmative action policies intended to overcome barriers like those his father confronted.
The job is a challenge; under California law, the law school cannot use race as a factor in admissions. But tackling that challenge was an important reason he took it.
“This was ground zero for the opportunity struggle that defines the civil rights agenda,” Mr. Edley, 55, said in a recent interview in the book-lined anteroom to his office in Berkeley. “The challenges in education, health care, immigration, the criminal justice system, here in California, capture what the battle for racial and ethnic justice is today.”
Mr. Edley said he believed that most people are not against using race as a factor in providing job, education or other opportunities.
“People oppose quotas, in the sense of rigid, numerical straitjackets, and they oppose giving unqualified people preferential treatment,” he said. “But they also support pragmatic efforts to open up doors.”
As dean, Mr. Edley is pursuing an ambitious agenda that would put Boalt in the middle of debates over discrimination as well as over health care costs, technology and other difficult problems. The centerpiece of his plan is to build several new “institutes,” each devoted to studying issues like civil rights, technology, business law and health care.
Deans of rival institutions are closely watching how Mr. Edley, the first African-American dean at Boalt and one of a few in the country, carries out his plans.
“People are full of the most glowing things to say about him, that he is a visionary, that he’s brought this new intellectual vibrancy to the school,” said Elena Kagan, the dean of Harvard Law School, where for more than 20 years Mr. Edley taught civil rights and subjects ranging from environmental to tax law.
Mr. Edley, whose career also includes extensive Washington experience in the Carter and Clinton administrations, is intense yet relaxed and informal, a thoughtful man with round eyeglasses who appears youthful despite a graying beard. He prefers jeans to suits and ties.
And he is often soft-spoken as he outlines his plans, which include raising Boalt’s already high profile by hiring dozens of professors and seeking to raise more than $100 million to improve facilities, offer more financial aid and build the institutes.
Mr. Edley said that the institutes are modeled on the Project on Civil Rights, which he helped found at Harvard. The project, which is dedicated to studying racial and ethnic justice, law and policy, and run by Gary Orfield, is moving to the University of California, Los Angeles, this year — another sign, Mr. Edley said, that the center of debate on the issues it studies has shifted to California.
Mr. Edley said he hoped that research by one of the new institutes, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity, will provide ammunition to supporters of using race in admissions. If the law were to change, Boalt might have more minority students and that would be good for the institution, he said.
“I’m always sensitive to the fact that affirmative action has very little direct bearing on the challenges facing the masses of poor minority families,” Mr. Edley said. “But I’ve also seen the ways in which inclusion can transform an institution, not only in its character but in its effectiveness.”
As an example, Mr. Edley described a debate in the 1980s among members of the board of managers of Swarthmore College, his alma mater. Mr. Edley and another black member of the board argued that Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania, should divest its investments in South Africa, and they believed that the tide was against them.
“It just looked clear, we were not going to get the consensus needed,” Mr. Edley said. He and his colleague discussed when to resign from the board, but posed a final question to the other members.
“Whose institution is this?” Mr. Edley recalled asking. “And is our presence here merely as invited guests in someone else’s house, or are we owners of this place and its aspirations, every bit as much as the rest of you?”
Swarthmore’s board ultimately decided to divest, he said.
In coming to Boalt, Mr. Edley worried about whether he would feel part of the institution. He met with minority law students and tried to gauge their views of the campus, and was gratified to observe that they felt a sense of ownership in the law school. That feeling eluded him, he said, in his own education.
“It’s the difference between being an employee or customer and being a stockholder,” Mr. Edley said.
Mr. Edley was born while his father was in his third year of law school. He graduated from Swarthmore in 1973, then followed his father to Harvard Law. He also has a master’s degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
In Washington, he worked in various White House posts and for the Department of Health and Human Services. In 1995, he directed the White House review of affirmative action for President Bill Clinton.
At a meeting at the White House in February 1997, Mr. Edley met Maria Echaveste, then on the president’s senior staff. They married in 1999, and Ms. Echaveste, a co-founder of the Nueva Vista Group, a lobbying firm, travels back and forth to Berkeley from her office in Washington. They are raising two children; Mr. Edley also has a 23-year-old son from a previous marriage.
Mr. Edley said he had little interest in returning to Washington.
“I have no Potomac fever left,” he said.
Like any top academic official, Mr. Edley spends much of his time these days on fund-raising. That, too, is a challenge, he said, because many of the law school’s alumni do not realize how expensive tuition has become — more than $25,000 a year for California residents — and they do not understand the need for donations.
“The alumni mistakenly believe that the state remains committed to providing a quality legal education for next to nothing,” Mr. Edley said. “But those days are over.”