Public Comment

The Death of A Public Law School

By Benjamin Eisenberg
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 09:03:00 AM

The University of California Berkeley Law School is poised to become the most expensive publicly owned law school in the world. Over the next two years, fees will increase by 32 percent. That means that California students will soon pay almost $52,000 a year in tuition, only a few thousand less than equivalent private law schools. Out-of-state students will pay the same as if they had gone to Harvard or Yale.  

With these tuition changes, there will be no more Berkeley public law school. The California public law school dies today.  

In this new world, Berkeley will be much like Stanford or Duke, except that the California government will act much like a well-respected alumnus, one that can put its name on a very large plaque in the donor lobby. Much like Stanford, Berkeley will offer generous financial aid for low-income students, provide a loan repayment program for public-interest lawyers, and finance various public policy institutes that will serve the public good. Like Yale, Berkeley will send about 15 percent of its students into public service.  

If a private law school can do all these things, in what sense, then, is Berkeley a public school?  

The doors of Berkeley are not open to the public, as it is one of the most exclusive in the nation. Neither are its finances, since it provides less financial aid for low-income students than Stanford or Harvard. Aside from being selected by the governor, the Board of Regents functions much as any other private nonprofit management board, since it is given nearly complete leeway by the state government. Much like any other private nonprofit, it must fundraise from wealthy donors, build its prestige to encourage alumni giving and closely watch its rankings on U.S. News and World Report.  

The law school has become private, and I fear that in doing so it will lose its soul. The power of public education is that it is available to the most capable and motivated, regardless of ability to pay. Public education is a dream that truth will be glimpsed through virtue, not money. We need to think long and hard about whether we believe in public law schools anymore—and if we do, we need to fight to keep them alive. 

Indeed, if we do not make fundamental political change now, the current rate of tuition increases will lead to private levels of payment even at the undergraduate level. I regret the fact that in twenty years it may be my duty to write a similar obituary for the massive death of an old form of public education: the University of California itself.  


Sources: “Just the Facts,” prepared by the Berkeley Law administration; “Impact of Fee Increases,” prepared by the Berkeley Law student government, and Equal Justice Works Guide, a nonprofit guide to law school commitment to public service. 


Benjamin Eisenberg is a 2L at Berkeley Law School.