Civil Rights Project loses Edley, marches on


After 22 years as a Harvard Law School professor, Christopher Edley, Jr. is heading west to serve as dean of the Boalt School of Law at Berkeley. The decision came after a long search from which Edley attempted to remove his name, citing concerns about the future of the Harvard Civil Rights Project (CRP) that he co-founded in 1996 and piloted to its current status on the forefront of civil rights policy research, legislation and execution.

Since Boalt’s decision, much has been written about Edley’s varied achievements while an HLS professor, particularly his involvement in the Clinton and Carter presidential administrations and in assorted political campaigns.

For HLS, however, the greatest concern is that his absence will dampen efforts to advance the mission of CRP, as Edley describes it, “to be a source of intellectual capital for people concerned with racial and ethnic justice: generate first-rate legal and social science research, draw the policy implications from that, and do the lawyering required to engineer concrete statutory, regulation or litigation-based changes and strategies.”

CRP began as a three-person office in 1996 as a reaction to Hopwood v. Texas – the Fifth Circuit decision prohibiting public universities from forging diverse campuses by using race as a factor in admissions. Today, the project receives over $2.5 million in funding from illustrious foundations, has a staff of over 20 people and draws the attention of media and top applicants to HLS.

In its seven years, CRP has achieved marked successes and the concern has arisen about its fate after Edley’s departure.

An Influential Project

In its first years, the CRP brought together the legal scholars and social scientists whose combined efforts eventually supplied the “critical mass” legal theory that served as the centerpiece of the recent University of Michigan affirmative action cases. The group included those who briefed and argued before the Court, top civil rights enforcers, and Constitutional law scholars. In the end, the Court cited CRP’s work extensively as well as lower court records containing information from CRP’s research in reaching its conclusion that race may continue to be a factor in public university admissions.

In its work on the “No Child Left Behind Act,” CRP’s research indicated that “high stakes testing led to a risk of escalating drop out rates,” according to Edley. After testimony and bipartisan work on Capitol Hill, Congress added substantial portions of CRP’s recommendations to the final legislation to reflect this finding.

CRP has also published studies and books on racial disparities in society from special education to residential segregation and has directly contributed its findings to legislative advances.

Sustaining and Expanding the Project

The marked legal and social achievements of CRP have created a need for assurance that its founder’s departure will not dry up its funding or stifle its vibrancy. Dean Kagan has said that CRP “is a great benefit for the Law School, and we’ll do all we can to support it even after Chris[topher Edley]’s departure.”

According to Edley, the administration has already begun the process of ensuring stability. “Working with Dean Kagan and the development office we’ve begun gaining alumni donors to complement the foundation donors,” Edley says.

Given sustained or expanded funding, CRP could become a more student- and faculty-accessible institution, with the number of faculty projects going through CRP increased. Edley notes, with a hopeful tone, that “Dean Kagan is forming a small committee of Law School professors as advisors to the project, potentially including Charles Ogletree, Martha Minow, Lani Guiner and David Wilkins. So I actually think that my departure ironically is likely to lead to stronger connections to more of the Law School faculty and ultimately the curriculum.”

Professor Elizabeth Warren has expressed interest in researching racial disparities in the impact of consumer credit practices and the effect on asset accumulation. Edley believes that through such faculty research CRP can have a greater effect on teaching and learning at the law school.

CRP is also close to sealing a $1.8 million grant to embark on a substantial criminal justice policy project with several states, which will provide for some student research positions.

While the creation and sustaining of CRP is by no means Professor Edley’s only high-profile achievement during his years at the Law School – he has written articles and books on topics ranging from civil rights to administrative law, served Presidents, testified before Congress, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations – it represents a unique and important institution at the Law School whose continuity depends on community efforts to maintain its influence and strength.

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