Race and Leadership at a Very Important and Difficult Moment

By Erwin Chemerinsky, 
Dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law,
University of California, Berkeley School of Law

Being a law school dean in 2020 poses unprecedented challenges.  We are in the midst of a pandemic and the worst public health crisis in over a century.   Some of our students, staff, and faculty, and their loved ones, have been afflicted by COVID-19; all of us are anxious about it.  There is depression-level unemployment and many in our community are struggling.   This fall, those in California are contending with wildfires and smoke. We have turned to remote teaching and learning in order to sustain continuity in legal education, only to face rolling blackouts and the likelihood of PG&E Public Safety Power Shutdowns.

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the more recent police shooting of Jacob Blake, as well as efforts the Black Lives Matter movement, have brought the scale and extent of anti-Black racism into sharp focus, calling for a long overdue reckoning with racism and the ongoing legacy of anti-Black violence.

Amidst all of this, we are physically separated by the closures and social distancing required to stop the spread of a deadly communicable disease.  We cannot come together to comfort one another as we would at any other time.

What does it mean to be a leader of a law school in this very difficult time?  First, there is the need to be a voice for compassion, caring, and community.  As a dean, I have the ability to speak to all in our community and it is my responsibility to do so. 

After the death of George Floyd, I wrote, in part:  “We, as a Law School, have a special role and responsibility to play in ensuring justice.  We must loudly condemn the racism that is reflected in the much greater toll of COVID-19 on communities of color and the continued police brutality and violence directed at African-Americans.   We must express solidarity with our students, staff, and faculty of color for whom this is especially difficult.  We must speak out against the great economic inequalities, especially along racial lines, in our society.  We must provide education on these issues within our Law School and to the broader community.  As a small step in that direction, we will have a program on race and policing, featuring our faculty, likely on Monday, June 8. We must work hard for solutions, through the law and the legal system, to these deep-seated problems.  Our knowledge, our tools, and our privilege impose on us an obligation to study and learn, but also to act.  And we must echo the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Second, words are not enough; it is my duty to do all I can to help those in our community.  I have tried through many actions.  Soon after we went to “shelter in place,” I created an emergency fund for students and for staff and for our café employees (who are not employees of the university.)  I have done everything I can to ensure we will not layoff any staff and to provide every reassurance I can to them.  On several occasions, I have sent gift cards and certificates for food delivery services to every member of our staff, sometimes at my own expense.  We gave all of our staff Juneteenth off work.  When the fires and smoke ravaged our community, I arranged for the law school to pay for an air filter for all students and staff who needed one.  In early June, I created a weekly series of presentations on aspects of race and the law that continued through the summer and fall.  These, of course, are just a few examples.  But it is essential that as a leader I do all I can to help those in our community.

Third, I must be exceedingly transparent and candid.  When I made the decision that all instruction in the Fall semester would be online, I wrote a lengthy message to all in the community explaining why.  I have presented our budget, in great detail to our faculty, staff, and students.  I conduct a weekly town hall via Zoom – it began daily and then twice a week – for all faculty, staff, and students to make announcements and answer questions.

Sometimes the candor requires being honest and saying what people don’t want to hear.  Many of our students strongly advocate for the defunding of the campus police and asked me to join them in that call.  I know I disappointed them in explaining that I would advocate for reforms, but not elimination of the campus police.  The university has the obligation to protect the safety and security of all on campus.  There is a need for some security.  I believe that eliminating campus police would be worse for our students.  Without campus police, the Berkeley city police and the Alameda County sheriff would have a much greater presence on campus and they are far less sensitive to students and to issues of race and policing.  But part of being a leader is exercising my best judgment and communicating it honestly, even if it is not a welcome message.

I realize that I only have begun to scratch the surface of all that has been required and done over the last months.  I have made many mistakes.  I also have learned a tremendous amount.  I just hope I don’t have to ever use many of these lessons again.