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In Honor of Civil Rights Scholar Christopher Edley Jr. ’73, H’99

Christopher Edley Jr. speaks on panel

Christopher Edley Jr. ’73, H’99, a civil rights expert and policy adviser who worked closely with three Democratic presidents and six presidential campaigns and served as an innovative dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, died on Friday, May 10, in Stanford, Calif. He was 71. [New York Times: Christopher Edley Jr., Civil Rights Expert Heard by Presidents, Dies at 71]

Edley graduated from Swarthmore in 1973 with a degree in mathematics and economics and received a Masters in public policy and a J.D. and from Harvard University in 1978. He later became a professor of law at Harvard, where he edited the Harvard Law Review and co-founded its Civil Rights Project, and taught there for 23 years. Edley also served as the law school dean at University of California, Berkeley from 2004 to 2013.

In addition to his career in academia, Edley advised three Democratic presidential administrations on various issues ranging from affirmative action to immigration. In the late 1970s, he worked for the White House domestic policy staff, specializing on issues like food stamps, child welfare and disability for President Carter. Edley later served in the Office of Management and Budget for the Clinton administration and as special counsel to the president where he led the review of affirmative action. In 2008, he was a board member for the Obama (a former student of his) presidential transition with general responsibility for healthcare, education, and immigration.

Edley frequently returned to Swarthmore and served on the College's Board of Managers from 1982-93. In 2010, Edley joined a symposium on leadership, liberal arts, and the common good to mark President Rebecca Chopp’s inauguration. He also gave the 2012 McCabe Lecture, “Creating the K-16 Education System America Needs;” spoke to alumni in 2021 on the challenges and future direction for equity and justice in education, and last year, delivered the Alumni Weekend Collection.

Edley’s father, attorney and legendary president of the United Negro College Fund Christopher Edley Sr., also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the College in 1976. They are the only father-son duo to be so honored by the College.

 When he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Swarthmore in 1999 Edley said, when addressing the graduating class:

“[At Swarthmore], I learned to face the limits of my intelligence, without fear. I learned what it means to really understand something hard, only to realize that I was dead wrong, or that there was another, perhaps better way to understand it… And I learned that when there is trouble, find a grove of lilac bushes, lie down, get drunk on the fragrance, and think about important things.”

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