‘Ask the Big, Hard Questions’: HLS Professor Christopher Edley Jr. Dies at 71


In 2004, the Civil Rights Project — a Harvard-based think tank and research organization — held a meeting with approximately 80 university presidents to talk about race-conscious admissions.

Christopher F. Edley Jr., then a Harvard Law School professor and co-founder of the project, was just days out from a triple bypass surgery.

Still, he decided to attend the gathering, sporting some variation on his signature look: jeans, sneakers, and a big, bulky sweater.

According to Marilyn I. Byrne, the administrative manager of the Civil Rights Project, this was typical of Edley.


Edley believed it was necessary to be present, drive the conversation, and make change with his work “come hell or high water,” Byrne wrote in an email.

The former HLS professor, who advised U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and served as dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, died earlier last month in Palo Alto, California. He was 71.

Edley is survived by his wife, Maria Echaveste, and three children: Christopher F. Edley III, Elias Edley Echaveste, and Zara Edley Echaveste.

‘The Big, Hard Questions’

Born in Boston on Jan. 13, 1953, Edley grew up in Philadelphia and New Rochelle, N.Y. He attended Swarthmore College and later received his law degree from Harvard in 1978 before serving on Carter’s domestic policy staff.

Edley returned to the Law School as an assistant professor in 1981 and was granted tenure six years later, serving on the HLS faculty for a total of 23 years.

HLS professor Todd Rakoff, who taught a course on administrative law with Edley, said his former colleague had a distinctly “positive view of politics” and was able to show students the connection between the law they were learning and “things that were happening on the front page of the New York Times.”

“He was someone who really believed in the possibility of positive politics, and so, in terms of the teaching, he was much more attuned to the politics behind various things than I was,” Rakoff said. “He really was quite remarkably good at showing students how what looks like just a legal rule actually embedded one view or another — one approach or another to politics.”

In 1996, Edley, alongside Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Gary Orfield, founded the Civil Rights Project to advise academics and policy makers on racial justice issues.

According to Orfield, the project was founded with the intent to provide analysis on affirmative action for the Supreme Court after the issue that came to the fore in 2003 with Grutter v. Bollinger.

Edley insisted on using the Civil Rights Project to write a brief for the court to use, while Orfield opted to write a series of written reports and a book.

In the end, when the court ruled that the University of Michigan Law School’s race-conscious admissions practices were constitutional, they quoted both Edley’s brief and Orfield’s book in the decision.

“That almost never happens in the supreme court system,” Orfield said. “That was kind of a sign of when everything works together perfectly well.”

Byrne, who later served as Chief of Staff of Berkeley Law School under Edley, lauded his work ethic and enthusiasm for racial justice.

“He was intensely reform-minded, and he had a laser-like ability to focus on the key elements of a given challenge and go immediately to implementing remedies,” Byrne said.

“That was exciting, working for somebody who really understood there are a set of challenges and we’re going to attack it and actually make an impact,” she added.

HLS student Michal Kurlaender said Edley was the ideal professor because he challenged students to “rethink everything.”

“He’s gonna ask the big, hard questions and not take an easy way out,” Kurleander said.

‘Extended the Life of Affirmative Action’

Edley’s research and perspectives on affirmative action brought him to the Clinton White House in 1993, where he served as special counsel to the president and managed the administration’s affirmative action review. In 1995, Edley helped to write Clinton’s speech on affirmative action.

Edley also penned the book “Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race, and American Values,” in which he used legal analysis to argue in favor of affirmative action.

Ann O’Leary, a political advisor who co-founded The Opportunity Institute — a nonprofit that advocates for education equality — with Edley, said the significance of his contributions to affirmative action and the Clinton administration marked just one chapter of his “extraordinary legacy.”

“He extended the life of affirmative action for really 28 years, and I think that’s pretty extraordinary and almost a singular accomplishment,” O’Leary said.

Edley left Harvard in 2004 to serve as dean of Berkeley Law School, a position he held until 2013, when he stepped down amid treatment for prostate cancer. Edley returned to teaching in 2016, later serving as interim dean of Berkeley’s School of Education from 2021 to 2023.

While she first met him through her work in the Clinton administration, O’Leary said she continued to seek Edley’s mentorship later in her career.

“Chris was really on speed dial and always there for me to help me think through some of the big policy issues that were coming across my desk,” she said.

‘A Very Light-Hearted Aspect’

Though a serious academic, Byrne said Edley had a very distinctly warm and welcoming personality, as well as a sense of humor, both around the office and at home.

“He was the kind of person who would, when his kids were younger, could sit and watch ‘Despicable Me 2’ with them,” Byrne said. “He had a very light-hearted aspect to his personality.”

Edley met his wife at the White House in 1997, while they were both working in the Clinton administration.

The pair got engaged in the summer of 1999, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, alongside Sara Ehrman, hosted an engagement party for the couple in the East Room of the White House. They later worked together on the Opportunity Institute.

“My first impression of Christopher, in that February ’97 meeting, was that he talked too much. And he would respond afterwards when we got close, and we shared our first impressions. He said, ‘Well, I knew more about the subject than anybody in the room,’” Echaveste said.

“He was really, really smart, and he cared passionately about social justice and racial justice,” she said, “We never stopped talking about all kinds of things.”

— Staff writer Elyse C. Goncalves can be reached at Follow her on X @e1ysegoncalves or on Threads @elyse.goncalves.