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Indiana Law Journal




Clark Kerr has long enjoyed an iconic status among leaders in public higher education. The former president of the University of California left a lasting impression on the academic world with his Godkin Lectures on the future of colleges and universities delivered at Harvard in 1963. He spoke at a moment when public higher education, and indeed higher education more generally, had been enjoying a renaissance of energy and vision. After World War II, veterans returned and reinvigorated the student body with the support of the GI Bill, and state legislatures generously funded public institutions to keep tuition low so that postsecondary education would be affordable and accessible. This state support in turn assured the kind of quality instruction necessary to prepare adults for the complexities of the workplace and civic life at a time of increasingly sophisticated technology and an explosive growth in knowledge. The federal government pumped grant money into the sciences to wage the Cold War, and private industry saw the potential for gain by investing in promising new research with possible commercial applications. The expansion of programs and activities at colleges and universities was so diverse and dynamic that Kerr dubbed institutions like the University of California “multiversities.”

But if Kerr’s rise to prominence seemed rapid, his fall from grace was just as sudden. In the wake of antiwar protests at the University of California campuses, especially Berkeley, he was summarily dismissed from his post by then-Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967. Kerr returned to a relatively modest—some might say obscure—existence at the Berkeley campus. People sometimes wondered whether he was still alive. One day, as I was riding in a car with a longtime law professor at Boalt Hall, he turned to me and pointed out a nondescript man in a trench coat walking down the sidewalk. “That’s Clark Kerr,” my colleague said. It was as though I had glimpsed the last of a vanishing species, a kind of exotica, and I felt the poignancy of this once influential leader who had now become an object of curiosity.

I have to confess that when I first learned about Clark Kerr I was reminded of the myth of Icarus. It seemed that Kerr had flown too high, too close to the sun, and had been humbled for his precocious display of virtuosity. But, in truth, Icarus was never an apt comparison for Kerr. For one thing, there was the good humor and the good grace that Kerr displayed when he learned of his dismissal. He quipped that he was leaving the job as he began it, “fired with enthusiasm.” There was no arrogance in that tongue-in-cheek observation. In reading his book The Uses of the University, I found only an erudite voice and a lively mind. In fact, his naïve faith in moderate, managerial leadership as the key to stability and success in the modern multiversity revealed not a trace of hubris—albeit, in retrospect, perhaps a hint of political naïveté.

And so, I have discovered that the poignancy I felt on the occasion of sighting Clark Kerr had even deeper roots than I appreciated at the time. The State of California has built the single greatest system of public higher education that the world has ever known. And, like one of the University’s great leaders, the system has increasingly taken on the colorations of an endangered species, yet another form of exotica headed for extinction in a state with a steadily declining commitment to its colleges and universities. The purpose of this Article is to reflect on whether there will be a second act—if not for Kerr himself, then for the vision of public higher education that he cherished and nurtured. Kerr believed that public colleges and universities were integral to the health of our economy and the legitimacy of our democracy, a foundational conviction that I share. In this Article, I focus on the sector of public higher education that I know best, the public law school. To that end, I want to briefly recount the history of public law schools before I turn to the unique mission they pursue and the current difficulties they face. I will close with some reasons to be hopeful about their prospects and some steps that we must take to secure their future.

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Indiana University School of Law - Bloomington

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