Public service defines outgoing Berkeley Law dean’s legacy

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Outgoing UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Christopher Edley effectively ended his tenure when he took a medical leave of absence Monday, carrying with him a legacy as a progressive mountain-mover who oversaw a period of achievement for the law school despite facing daunting challenges.

Edley took the helm at Berkeley Law in 2004 after 23 years as a professor at Harvard Law School. He has extensive experience in public service: He managed federal spending at the Office of Management and Budget, held positions in five presidential administrations and served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He also taught Barack Obama when the president attended Harvard Law School.

Edley has championed a range of issues throughout his career, including civil rights and equity of educational opportunity. As dean, he also served as a special advisor to outgoing UC President Mark Yudof, helping the nation’s largest public university system tackle problems as diverse as online education and campus climate.

At Berkeley Law, Edley developed programs and services consistent with his interest in public service. He expanded the law school’s loan-forgiveness policy for students entering the government or nonprofit sectors upon graduation. According to Gillian Lester, a professor at the law school who is serving as interim dean during the search for a new dean, the policy has made for one of the most generous financial aid packages offered in the country. Edley also oversaw an expansion of the number of faculty members at the law school and commissioned capital projects such as the South Annex that many thought would never be accomplished.

Lester said that one of Edley’s most notable contributions has been the establishment of research centers through the law school that are tailored to study and tackle some of the public’s most pressing issues.

“One of his real strengths, his signature contributions, was to channel and help put our work toward on-the-ground policy reform,” she said. “He really made commitments to the public tradition of Berkeley law.”

Yet his involvement in civic life has not been without controversy, and Edley has not always emerged scathe-free. He inserted himself into the fray of the fall 2011 Occupy Cal protests when he co-authored a report advising the university on how to deal with future protest situations. In addition, he faced criticism for defending the employment of professor John Yoo, the former Bush adviser who helped write the controversial so-called “torture memos.”

“Assuming … that Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service, that judgment alone would not warrant dismissal or even a potentially chilling inquiry,” Edley said at the time.

Many, however, praised his attentiveness to feedback.

Sean Darling-Hammond, a Berkeley Law student and director of the school’s Student Commission for Excellence in Legal Education, said that Edley cared about student issues. According to Darling-Hammond, Edley was receptive when he approached him with concerns about the effect of a disadvantaged background on a student’s educational opportunities. Together, they established one of seven student-launched initiatives that the dean undertook.

“His personality is incredibly calm — brilliant and calm,” Darling-Hammond said. “You feel very much like you can figure it out with him, together. It’s very relaxing to problem-solve with him.”

Contact Jeremy Gordon at [email protected]

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the fall 2011 campus protest movement as Occupy Berkeley. In fact, it is Occupy Cal.

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