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Boalt Dean Choice Hailed

By Jakob Schiller
Friday December 19, 2003

When Christopher Edley Jr. won the post of dean of Boalt Hall law school last week, those in the know hailed the appointment as a major coup for UC Berkeley. 

His placement marks the first time since the 1940s Boalt has gone outside the faculty to pick a dean, his credentials are among the strongest in the country, and he will be the first African American to lead a top-tier law school.  

Supporters also hope his appointment will draw Boalt out of recent problems concerning a lack of racial and gender diversity in both the student body and the faculty.  

Since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, banning affirmative action, Boalt, like the rest of UC Berkeley, has seen a decline in minority enrollment. Critics hold Boalt directly responsible for the decline because the school has a poor record recruiting faculty of color. 

Boalt faces strong competition from other leading schools whose stronger records for diversity and larger endowments have snatched many of the top recruits.  

“We’ve been competing for highly qualified applicants and losing them to schools like Harvard, Yale and NYU,” said Linda Krieger, a civil rights lawyer and professor at Boalt who teaches employment discrimination, legal ethics and civil procedure. “[Edley’s] presence in the Civil Rights movement and as co-director of the Civil Rights Project will have a tremendous effect on countering Prop. 209, which has definitely put us at a competitive disadvantage.” 

Numbers at Boalt are not representative of the state’s overall minority population but according to Robert Berring, Boalt’s interim dean, the school has managed to slowly claw its way back to pre-Prop. 209 percentages. 

“The challenge that I face is to work with people to preserve that gain,” Edley said during a recent telephone press conference. “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 its done properly, and that it is central to the mission of a great university, especially a public university.” 

Boalt’s Coalition for Diversity quickly applauded the appointment. 

“The hiring of Edley represents a paradigm shift. The fact that Boalt decided to hire an African American man is significant, not just in California but across the country,” said Guy Johnson, chair of the coalition. 

Jeff Selbin, executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center—which partners with Boalt to run their largest clinical program—says increased minority recruitment will certainly benefit the center’s work which focuses primarily in communities of color. 

“It’s better for our program and our clients if the people who are working here come from the communities that they serve,” he said. 

On another front, some hope the spotlight on Edley as a strong and positive recruit will help Boalt shed some of the controversy generated last year when former Dean John Dwyer resigned following accusations that he’d sexually harassed a Boalt student and the resulting storm of bad press focusing on Boalt’s weak sexual harassment policies and disproportionately male staffing. 

Broad-based cuts in public education funding and outreach coupled with increasingly difficult fiscal problems rank high on the list of challenges facing Edley—challenges he said only added to the job’s appeal. 

“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,” he said. 

“A great public law school…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.”