How Erwin Chemerinsky plans to push Berkeley Law into the nation’s top 5 law schools

“This is where I plan to spend the rest of my academic career.”

Anissa Nishioka/Staff

Recently appointed dean Erwin Chemerinsky isn’t interested in rehabilitating the UC Berkeley School of Law — because he believes it doesn’t need rehabilitating.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Chemerinsky shared his confidence in the law school’s foundation in qualified faculty, as well as his hopes and plans going forward for broadening the school’s reach and depth.

Chemerinsky succeeds Melissa Murray, who filled the role on an interim basis after former dean Sujit Choudhry resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations and a lawsuit filed against him and the UC Board of Regents. Choudhry’s resignation preceded a landmark $1.7 million payment from the university to settle the lawsuit, as well as Berkeley Law’s fall from 8th to 12th in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Law School” rankings, creating a climate of uncertainty for Chemerinsky’s arrival to the Berkeley Law campus.

A humble character, Chemerinsky’s friendly demeanor wouldn’t lead you to guess that he is one of the most cited legal scholars in the nation. He is a celebrity in constitutional law, with 10 books, hundreds of law reviews and a handful of Supreme Court cases cluttering his curriculum vitae. But his work speaks for itself, and his addition to the campus community has been a source of excitement for faculty and students at a time when the campus is in flux.

From first-generation student to founding dean

Chemerinsky grew up in a working-class family on the far south side of Chicago in the 1950s — his father worked in a home improvement store and his mother worked in the home. In early adulthood, Chemerinsky considered his surefire path to be obtaining his teaching credentials and becoming a high school teacher.

It wasn’t until late in his college career that Chemerinsky realized he wanted to go to law school. The civil rights lawyers of the 1950s and 1960s served as his greatest inspirations.

“I went to law school believing that law was the most powerful tool for social change,” Chemerinsky said.

Now, in addition to Chemerinsky’s roles as a professor, scholar and administrator, he continues to practice law, handling appellate cases and writing briefs for active Supreme Court cases.

Chemerinsky also has an extensive background in administrative roles at law schools. Chemerinsky’s professional experience includes full-time professorships at Duke University and the University of Southern California, and he has also taught at the UCLA School of Law and the DePaul University College of Law.

Anissa Nishioka/Staff

Anissa Nishioka/Staff

Chemerinsky is frequently thought of as being the founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, which opened in 2009, but efforts to create the law school had been underway for two decades before Chemerinsky took on the role of dean. When Chemerinsky was first asked if he had any interest in the position, he declined, saying that his family had too recently moved to Durham, North Carolina — so he and his wife could work at Duke University — to justify another cross-country move.

Although he declined the offer, Chemerinsky agreed to advise the search committee for the new dean. It was only after this that he realized the job was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“There’s not going to be another university of the caliber of the University of California, Irvine, creating a law school in my lifetime,” Chemerinsky said. “I have a lot of views on legal education, and here was a chance to take advantage of a blank slate.”

The law school has since risen to great heights, according to various rankings that determine faculty impact on scholars in the field and campuses that place students in judicial clerkships. U.S. News & World Report’s 2018 “Best Law School” rankings placed UC Irvine’s law school at 28th in the country, a notable feat considering that the law school was nonexistent 10 years ago.

Chemerinsky’s former colleagues speak fondly of him. He has to stop himself from saying “we” when he talks about the UC Irvine School of Law. L. Song Richardson, interim dean of the UC Irvine law school, called Chemerinsky “extraordinarily kind and humble.” According to Richardson, UC Irvine staff had to trick Chemerinsky into attending his going-away party by downplaying the event.

Former interim Berkeley Law dean Murray said Chemerinsky was the only person to ask if she was interested in being considered for the permanent role of dean. Chemerinsky said he wouldn’t put himself in the running if she was, according to Murray.

“He’s well-known for being a good person,” Murray said. “(This) spoke volumes about his sensitivity and respect.”

In an effort to get to know his new campus, Chemerinsky and his wife hosted all of the first-year and Master of Laws students at their home over the course of two weeks. He plans to continue this effort by having coffee with students every two weeks and holding town hall discussions once a semester. A testament to the close working relationship he maintains with his students, Chemerinsky once inherited a freedom of speech case from a former student — a case called Tory v. Cochran, which he argued and won before the Supreme Court in 2005.

Chemerinsky spoke excitedly of his quick transition to UC Berkeley, calling the pace and ease with which it occurred “magical.” The opportunity opened up just as Chemerinsky, who was about to enter his final year as dean of UC Irvine Law, was considering his next career step. He said that Berkeley Law was a natural and timely fit.

“This is where I plan to spend the rest of my academic career,” Chemerinsky added.

Not maintenance, but excellence

Less than two months into his new job, Chemerinsky speaks of Berkeley Law with the warmth and familiarity of a longtime faculty member. He explained that the law school is hiring new faculty at an unprecedented rate and emphasized the dedication of the school’s staff and students, adding that application numbers are going up in spite of national downward trends. Chemerinsky said he felt his primary responsibility is preserving the greatness of the school and continuing to seek out new areas of excellence.

“He’s well-known for being a good person.” — Former interim dean of Berkeley Law Melissa Murray

He’s no stranger to the campus, either. Chemerinsky’s wife, Catherine Fisk, and the majority of her family are UC Berkeley alumni, and Fisk will continue her tradition of working alongside her husband by serving as a professor on campus. Chemerinsky said the best thing UC Berkeley gained by hiring him is his wife’s addition to the faculty.

A dip in rankings doesn’t affect Chemerinsky’s attitude towards the law school, as he explained that overall, Berkeley Law has remained within the top 10 law schools in the nation over the last decade. And although the dean’s official term is five years, Chemerinsky is dedicated to his long-term vision for the law school.

“I want to see us be in or near the top five of all law schools within this 10-year period,” Chemerinsky said. “I want to see us take the areas of excellence that we have and make them even better.”

The new dean’s top priority is boosting the law school’s financial situation. Law schools in the UC system have been hurt by the fact that tuition has been frozen since 2012, Chemerinsky said. His vision for Berkeley Law’s financial sustainability will manifest in two ways: revenue-generating programs and alumni outreach.

Chemerinsky has tapped a former dean of the law school, Christopher Edley, to chair a committee on identifying new revenue-generating programs. This effort will likely include the expansion of executive education, which offers graduate-level training for business leaders, and the creation of programs that provide lawyers training for corporate counsel.

The law school also has to improve its fundraising efforts, as annual giving among its alumni base is low in comparison to peer law schools. Chemerinsky said he recognizes the “tremendous love and devotion” that Berkeley Law alumni have for their alma mater, adding that he hopes to produce additional funds by being present and proactive and by traveling to meet personally with alumni.

“It’s a special mission of a public university to serve the public.” — Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky

He also plans to collaborate outside of the law school, potentially creating a dual degree program with the School of Public Health and expanding the current dual J.D. and MBA program made available in partnership with the Haas School of Business.

In addition to mending the law school’s revenue streams, Chemerinsky intends to work closely with its experiential education programs. This includes clinical and pro bono programs centered around helping underrepresented communities.

“It’s a special mission of a public university to serve the public,” Chemerinsky said.

Defending free speech

In the midst of several free speech-related controversies at UC Berkeley, Chemerinsky, along with UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman, published a book titled “Free Speech on Campus” last week. Chemerinsky said he considers it a luxury and obligation to express his views as honestly as he can. He has consistently written opinion-editorial articles during his career and currently writes a weekly column for the Sacramento Bee — and his goal isn’t neutrality.

All ideas and views can be expressed on a college campus without exception, Chemerinsky said, emphasizing that the proper response to disagreements should be more speech, counter-demonstrations, teach-ins or silent protests. Interference is unacceptable, according to Chemerinsky — this would create a heckler’s veto, which has the potential to stifle speech arbitrarily.

“When there’s a controversial speaker, the campus has to expend the money to make sure that person can safely speak,” Chemerinsky said. “That’s the constitutional obligation. It’s also the obligation that academic freedom imposes.”

He added that public safety, however, becomes paramount when diligent efforts are unable to guarantee both free speech and safety, but that this is hopefully an exceptional case and last resort.

Chemerinsky expressed his excitement for Chancellor Carol Christ’s plans to make the 2017-18 academic year a “free speech year” for UC Berkeley. He has since participated in a faculty panel on free speech and white supremacy hosted by Christ. Chemerinsky’s views on free speech are shaped not only by his background in constitutional law, but also by his experiences teaching a class called “Free Speech on Campus” at UC Irvine, which he co-taught with Gillman.

Now Chemerinsky, the most influential name in legal education, is actively applying his expertise to a willing Berkeley Law, inspiring a new era for the law school, its faculty and students.

The jury’s still out. Chemerinsky is a soft-spoken man with understated but unmistakable gravitas, and he could be everything that Berkeley didn’t know it needed.

Ani Vahradyan covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anivahrad.