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Berkeley Law dean charged with 'fixing the educational pipeline'

Chris Edley plans to tackle society's 'most critical' problems

| 26 February 2009

Christopher Edley Jr.Berkeley law school dean Christopher Edley Jr. is advising UC President Mark Yudof on a range of crucial issues. (Jim Block photo)

Given his career-long commitment to tearing down America’s racial barriers — as both a leader in academia and a veteran Washington hand with ties to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, his one-time student at Harvard Law School — you might expect Christopher Edley to view California’s anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209 as enemy No. 1.

But the Berkeley Law dean, who played a pivotal role in shaping Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” policy on affirmative-action programs during the 1990s, insists the ban on considering race in college admissions isn’t the crux of the problem. The real wrench that’s been tossed into what he dubs the state’s “opportunity engine,” he believes, is the failure of its educational system at every level.

“If I could repeal one ballot measure,” he says, “it would be Proposition 13,” the 1978 property-tax initiative that slashed revenues for the state’s public schools. Even if Prop. 209 were overturned, he explains, “we would still have enormous diversity challenges because the K-12 system is so broken. I think civil-rights advocates have always understood that affirmative action did little to remedy the fundamental drivers of inequality.”

The desire to stop inequality at its source, in part, is what motivated Edley to accept a new role as special adviser to UC President Mark Yudof, an old acquaintance with whom Edley began to develop “a mutual admiration” last year while helping to lure him away from the University of Texas. Foremost in his “evolving portfolio of special projects” for Yudof are two closely related assignments: a collaboration with the California State University and community-college systems that is aimed at improving transfer rates from two-year to four-year institutions, and “a broader undertaking” by which UC can boost educational quality for students at every level — beginning with preschool.

Ending discrimination is “certainly one of the reasons I’m passionate about education,” says Edley, who modeled the law school’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity after the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which he co-founded in 1996. As “a broadly interested policy wonk,” though, he sees his advisory role as a way to tackle a host of society’s “most critical” problems — including energy, the environment, and health, the subjects of multidisciplinary research centers at the law school — “on a system scale, as opposed to just here on campus.”

UC’s interest in such issues “is not unlike our interest in 1940 in mobilizing our intellectual capital to beat the Nazis in building an atomic bomb,” he says. “Education is the issue of the day in terms of our social and economic future, and the challenges are substantively daunting, which means leading institutions need to lead.

“Is that too much to ask?” he wonders, laughing at the obviousness of the question. “That leaders lead?”

Not that he doesn’t see movement. The University of California Regents, for example, took “a valuable step” recently by making consideration for admission to UC less dependent on grade-point averages and SAT scores. But that, in Edley’s view, fails to get at the heart of the problem.

“Loosening the narrowly mechanical test of who is prepared is long overdue,” he says. “But it’s not the same as taking direct action to repair the pipeline. And that is the object of these two initiatives.”

From a parochial standpoint, Edley says, a healthy community-college system is needed to prepare many of tomorrow’s leaders — currently ill-served in grades K-12 — to succeed at Berkeley and other UC campuses.

More broadly, though, community colleges are “a critical part of the opportunity engine, particularly in California and Texas, where huge supermajorities of the people of color in higher education” are at two-year institutions. “If those systems don’t work, we simply won’t have a vibrant middle class 15 years from now. The stakes are huge. And right now, there’s cause not just for concern, but for alarm.”

Fixing the education pipeline is “an essential recipe for upward mobility,” Edley says. After a long pause, he adds: “I almost get teary thinking about it.”

Magic, money, and Mouton

In addition to being one of Obama’s law professors, Edley more recently served as an adviser to his presidential transition team. But “this Oakland entanglement,” he explains, “got geared up at the same time the Obama entanglement was unwinding,” which means he won’t be lobbying his former student for higher-ed support so much as providing UC’s Office of the President with insights and advice on inside-the-Beltway strategy. But even that, he insists, will be “a minor part of the portfolio” in his role with Yudof.

As exemplified by a third, “preliminary” initiative the two have discussed — one involving energy security and climate change — much of his focus is likely to be on positioning UC “to ensure that our world-class researchers have the greatest possible impact on public policy.”

Such an approach will be especially crucial, he observes, given the enormous financial strains on colleges and universities from Boston to Berkeley.

“There’s no magic to this,” he declares. “In the near term, resources for these initiatives will have to come from outside private sources, and from very minor reallocation of internal resources. I believe there’s a great deal that can be done with very little new money, in part because our faculty doing work in these areas care so passionately about the subjects. So harnessing and refocusing and translating their work is doable with a quite small investment.”

On the other hand, he adds, “governments at all levels are starved for resources, so a lot of this is about preparing the battle plans now, to be implemented when the recession is over. Because at some point there will be an upturn and an opportunity for investment, and we want to make sure the investments are informed by research that’s excellent, timely, and digestible.”

As just one example, Edley points to what he calls “a research consensus” about the value of investments in certain kinds of preschool education. “Now is not the time to be talking about universal preschool in California,” he suggests. “But that day will come. And when it comes, the design of the program should be based on evidence, not ideology. And that’s what we can provide.”

Obama’s ‘spooky’ calmness

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying his time — roughly a day a week, some of it spent at UCOP’s Oakland headquarters and lots of it on his Blackberry — getting to know Yudof and his senior team better. One thing Edley has learned, he says, is that Yudof and Obama are “strikingly similar in intellectual style,” a phenomenon he attributes to their both being “terrific lawyers.”

“They are principled but not ideological; they insist on exploring multiple sides of every issue in just the way that a litigator thinks hard about what’s the best argument his opponent has; they don’t believe they have a monopoly on the truth, and are therefore prepared to engage people with whom they disagree, just as a lawyer recognizes that any complicated issue is amenable to a variety of approaches,” he begins.

“They both enjoy a good argument, but like a judge, when the moment for decision comes, there’s no flinching, no dithering. And, like the best lawyers, as consummate problem-solvers they appreciate the value of integrating a lot of different disciplines and professional perspectives in order to get the right answer. It’s the way I preach about the law school, the notion of the lawyer/problem-solver as a general contractor, who pulls in the expertise you need to best understand the problem.

“And finally,” he concludes, “both of them have a style that reduces drama — Yudof through humor, Obama with a spooky, radiant calmness.”

Asked how Obama has changed since his Harvard days, Edley compares him to “a fabulous red wine.”

“When it’s young, its potential is exciting, and then with age the real power and beauty of it comes out. That process accelerated to lightning speed during the campaign, and I think the best is yet to come.”

Obama, Edley predicts, “is gonna keep getting better and better.”