Dean Chemerinsky recommends removing Boalt name from use at Berkeley Law

Law Schools

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The University of California, Berkeley’s law school dean has recommended that the last name of mining industry baron John Boalt be removed from a campus building, and is encouraging campus groups to discontinue using “Boalt” in their names.

The UC Berkeley School of Law has been among several such schools that have reconsidered or removed names with connected with racist histories.

A Nevada attorney who came to California in the 1880s, Boalt was the author of a paper in the previous decade titled “The Chinese Question,” which argued in favor of preventing immigration from China because “Caucasian and Mongolian races are non-assimilating races,” and claimed the Chinese were inferior to white Americans. In his writing, Boalt also expressed negative views about blacks and Native Americans, according to a report from a committee assembled by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky to examine the issue. The group in June suggested removing Boalt references from a campus building, as well as in internal communications and casual namings.

The chancellor has the final decision on removing the Boalt name from the law school building, Chemerinsky wrote in his Nov. 13 letter. He’s received more than 600 messages since the committee report was shared, with about 60 percent in favor of losing the Boalt name and 40 percent wanting to keep it.

“I confess that I have changed my mind several times over the course of this process,” Chemerinsky’s letter reads. “I find this a very difficult question. I am reassured, though, that ultimately this is about a symbol, not the substance of the law school. Berkeley Law is a terrific, very special place whether we officially use the name Boalt or not.”

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Elizabeth Boalt, John Boalt’s widow, donated two parcels of San Francisco land (valued then at $100,000) to the law school in 1906. She gave instructions that the property be sold and the proceeds go toward a new building for what was then known as the School of Jurisprudence. A week later the San Francisco earthquake occurred, and the school could only sell one parcel, said Charles Cannon, Berkeley Law’s senior assistant dean and chief administrative officer, in a September interview with the ABA Journal.

The naming of Boalt Hall, built in 1950 to house the law school, was honorific, and Boalt has never been part of the school’s official name, Cannon said. The law school stopped using the Boalt name in branding 10 years ago, but Cannon said many still refer to the school as Boalt Hall.

In addition to endorsing suggestions to remove the name from the building, Chemerinsky writes that the law school will cease using the Boalt name for the “many things within the law school that use the name Boalt;” recommends other organizations within the law school also drop the name; and notes that lecturer positions that include the Boalt name will be renamed in honor of former deans Jesse Choper, Herma Hill Kay and Christopher Edley.

“We will take additional steps to ensure that Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt and her generosity continue to be recognized,” Chemerinsky wrote in his Nov. 13 letter. “We also will take steps to ensure that the racism underlying the Chinese Exclusion Act be remembered. I will provide more details about this in the months ahead.”

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The estate of Elizabeth Boalt created two endowed faculty chairs, and the donation appears to have name requirements, Cannon said in September.

See also:

ABA Journal (February 2018): “Law school and university namesakes stir up controversial pasts”


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