By Andrew Cohen
At times, the descriptions of Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky seem wholly contradictory.
Colleagues joke that he’s a machine, that no human could write so many books, op-eds, and articles; answer so many emails, phone calls, and letters; and lead so many organizations, initiatives, and committees. But they’re also quick to note his humanity, and how it drives a leadership style that fosters mutual respect, high morale, and inspiring results.
On Jan. 5, UC Berkeley announced Chemerinsky’s appointment to another five-year term, enabling him to build on his impressive record since becoming dean in July 2017.
“Erwin combines a superhuman capacity for hard and brilliant work with an extraordinarily humane attitude toward everyone with whom he interacts,” says Professor Molly Van Houweling, Berkeley Law’s associate dean of J.D. Curriculum and teaching. “I’ve never met anyone more capable and kind, nor fully appreciated before how rare and wonderful it is for those characteristics to be combined in a leader.”
The most frequently cited American legal scholar according to a study of legal publications between 2016 and 2020, Chemerinsky has been named the most influential person in legal education in the United States by National Jurist. Starting this month, he will serve a one-year term as president of the Association of American Law Schools.
In four-plus years as dean, Chemerinsky has helped Berkeley Law improve its financial stability and student diversity, expand its faculty ranks and experiential offerings, and increase resources for students and recent graduates pursuing public interest careers.
“It has been a tremendous honor and pleasure,” he says. “Berkeley Law is a unique and special institution. By every measure, it’s an excellent law school and distinguished by an unwavering commitment to public service and an extraordinary community. Despite some major challenges, I believe the law school has gotten stronger and better over the last four years.”
Excellence across the board
Berkeley Law was a top law school when Chemerinsky arrived after serving as UC Irvine Law’s founding dean from 2008-2017. But it had four deans and interim deans over the previous four years, creating difficulties in administration and coordination among parts of the school.
“The law school had been through some hard times, and a key objective in my first couple of years was to improve morale,” he says. “The culture of any institution is the product of many choices, and concrete steps were taken to enhance transparency, collaboration, and community.”
Chemerinsky instituted biweekly meetings of senior administrators, and giving detailed budget presentations to faculty, staff, and students; conducted annual meetings with staff in each department; created faculty-staff committees for crucial tasks; and held regular town halls and faculty events. A survey of climate among staff before the COVID-19 pandemic showed major improvement over what it had been before Chemerinsky’s arrival.
Under his watch, the median LSAT score for Berkeley Law’s first-year class rose from 167 to 169, the faculty added 16 new members with sterling credentials, and the Clinical Program and LL.M. Programs expanded significantly.
“The chance to be a part of this diverse, vibrant, and growing scholarly community was an honor for me,” says Professor Abhay Aneja, hired in 2019, who studies how legal institutions affect economic and social inequality. “Even though my research projects tend to be somewhat different in method and subject matter from many on the faculty, Erwin always supports junior scholars who are trying to think about social problems in new ways.”
Vigilant about advancing the school’s public mission, Chemerinsky also steered important increases in scholarships. Financial aid for J.D. students more than doubled from under $10.8 million when he arrived to more than $22 million this year.
“From the very first day of orientation, Dean Chemerinsky made it clear that students and their experience was his number one priority,” says Jameson Davis, 3L representative for the Student Association at Berkeley Law. “Throughout the turmoil of the pandemic, he has been as transparent as possible and done everything in his power to make sure that students continued to receive an exceptional education.”
For his new term, Chemerinsky cites several key priorities: putting Berkeley Law on a very stable long-term financial model; resolving space shortages at the school; enhancing its public mission, including expanding in-house clinical faculty; continuing to recruit and retain outstanding faculty; enhancing the student experience; and continuing to enhance the diversity and inclusiveness of students, staff, and faculty.
In the years before Chemerinsky’s arrival, there were several years of significant budget cuts and layoffs. During his four years at the helm, there have been no layoffs — and the school has restored most of what was previously cut.
In addition, Berkeley Law has increased funding for public interest fellowships by over $1.5 million in the last two years. It has also upped expenditures for its Loan Repayment Assistance Program, Pro Bono Program, and graduate student fellowships in its Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) Program.
The unexpected jolt of the pandemic in March 2020 posed a major threat to Berkeley Law’s finances. Revenue decline from reduced LL.M. Program enrollment, campus budget cuts, and lower UC funding for law school public interest programs created a loss of $12 million in revenue compared to the prior year.
Chemerinsky took several strategic steps to mitigate the situation without compromising the school’s programs. Although Berkeley Law projected a $3 million deficit last summer that it planned to cover from reserves, it ended the fiscal year with a small surplus.
“We accomplished this without any staff layoffs or cuts in our educational program,” Chemerinsky says. “We project the current fiscal year being substantially better and being on solid financial footing for the years ahead.”
During the pandemic, Chemerinsky worked to build community in several ways. He created a weekly virtual lecture series on legal issues arising from COVID-19 that regularly attracted more than 150 attendees, which then became a weekly series on race and the law.
Chemerinsky also helped launch a weekly interview series of judges and prominent lawyers that continued through 2020 and continued with less frequency last spring. He held regular town halls — daily for several weeks, then twice a week, and now weekly — making announcements and taking questions.
Chemerinsky writes detailed quarterly letters to alumni and regular written messages to the broader law school community. He also holds tailored town halls with staff, 3Ls, LL.M.s, entering students, and returning students, and schedules a 30-minute meeting with every faculty member at the end of each semester.
“There are so many things to say about Erwin’s wonderful leadership,” says Berkeley Law Alumni Association Co-Vice President Cara Sandberg ’12. “I’ve particularly appreciated his enthusiastic support of ideas and suggestions from the alumni community. He has empowered us to implement new alumni engagement initiatives and provides helpful support and feedback.”
Chemerinsky helped bolster the school’s development efforts, resulting in programs that include regional alumni chapters, a Dean’s Leadership Council that requires a multi-year gift, and ramped-up engagement with current students through the Berkeley Alumni in Residence program.
Last fiscal year, the school set a record with just under $31 million in pledges and outright gifts. That included a considerable increase in its annual fund from the previous year, and a notable increase in new donors.
Broader public interest reach
Chemerinsky hired a full-time director of pro bono opportunities for students and two staff members for that office. Over 90% of Berkeley Law students now do pro bono work during law school.
The UC Office of the President cut funding for the school’s public interest fellowships from $1.8 million in fiscal year 2020 to $1.3 million last year and $1 million this year. Yet Berkeley Law has increased the size of summer grants to students doing public interest work and the size of post-graduate fellowships.
“We’ve also changed the income required to qualify for our Loan Repayment Assistance Program to make it more generous for students,” Chemerinsky notes. “Berkeley Law has absorbed this additional cost from school funds rather than cut our programs. Overall, we are spending $1.5 million more compared to two years ago on public interest programs.”
Berkeley Law’s Clinical Program has also been a major priority. Chemerinsky elevated the status of all clinical faculty, created the first chairs for that group, and improved the clinics’ financial model. This has led to a notable increase in clinical supervisors and fellows, expanding opportunities for students and legal services for community members in need.
In fall 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a whopping seven bills spearheaded by the school’s clinics and research centers that focused on protecting residents’ civil, financial, and environmental rights.
“Erwin has been an extraordinary booster of clinical education at Berkeley Law. It has been such a lift to the program,” says Environmental Law Clinic Director Claudia Polsky ’96. “He is helping the law school expand clinics substantially to serve more students and more clients, but he also consults in earnest with existing clinical faculty to make sure the expansion is thoughtful. He has additionally identified new funding sources and new subject areas for potential clinics.”
Berkeley Law has significantly increased the diversity of its students, faculty, and senior administrators since Chemerinsky arrived. Of the 16 faculty members hired under his watch, nine are people of color. He also created a position in the Dean of Students’ office focused on equity and inclusion and a staff equity advisor, and is in the process of adding an Assistant Dean for Equity and Inclusion.
Within the curriculum, the school has greatly increased course offerings on race and the law, launched a race and the law hub on Berkeley Law’s website detailing the school’s activities in this area, and created an ongoing speaker series on these issues.
“It’s essential that we be a law school that is diverse and committed to diversity, where all are treated equitably and fairly, and where all feel included and that they belong,” Chemerinsky says. “It is essential, too, that we be an anti-racist law school. Like all aspects of culture, this requires a sustained commitment and many different efforts.”
When he arrived at Berkeley Law, there were 12 Black students in the entering J.D. class of 320 students. The following years, that number increased to 28, 33, and this year 43. Berkeley Law also dramatically increased its Native American and Latinx student enrollment and has the largest percentage of women students at any top 20 law school (over 60%).
“We did a careful study and saw that our problem was yield: we were accepting diverse students, but they weren’t coming to Berkeley,” Chemerinsky says. “We developed an aggressive program — relying on alumni, faculty, and students — to recruit those we admitted.”
Chemerinsky has served on several campus leadership committees during his tenure. This past year alone, he chaired the professional school deans’ group and was a member of the deans’ budget committee and return to work committee.
In collaborating with other UC Berkeley deans on various projects and task forces, Chemerinsky has forged meaningful connections with different campus units to help the law school leverage the expertise of the world’s top-ranked public university.
The initiatives focus on areas such as hiring Native American faculty, expanding diversity and inclusion efforts, and combating online disinformation. The latter brings together a small group of deans and other expert leaders, including former UC President and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, to address society’s growing disinformation problem.
They serve as an advisory group to a journalism class of students from five campus schools, who will produce audio stories they expect to see published nationally. The students are reviewing and categorizing all bills relating to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which broadly shields platforms from legal liability for the actions of third-party users of their services. The group will provide its findings to Congress in the hope of ensuring the best legislation possible to combat disinformation online.
“Erwin combines his absolute brilliance with a collegiality unlike anything I’ve experienced before,” says Graduate School of Journalism Dean and Pulitzer Prize winner Geeta Anand. “From the day I became interim dean, he’s opened himself up to offering advice on anything and collaborating on the issues most important at this moment in history.
“Despite a crazy schedule, he’s been willing to partner with me on bringing together leaders around campus to address the disinformation disaster on social media. I would not be as strong a leader at the journalism school if not for his wise advice. And I would not be able to collaborate as well across campus if not for his partnership.”