“You’re going to make me sound either like a visionary or a nut,” quips Frank Wu in the conference room of his San Francisco office. “I’m good with that … it’s hard to tell the difference.”
As chancellor and dean of the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, Wu has certainly been called both. And it’s not because he walks through San Francisco’s legendarily sketchy Tenderloin neighborhood every day on his way to work–he even sent out a campus-wide email inviting students to join him. Or because he’s watched a full episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and deemed it “poignant, funny, and touching,” mainly because it featured “blasian” (black-Asian) Lisa Wu Hartwell–interracial dynamics are a favorite topic of his. Or because he zips around on a motorcycle and blogs about it. No, the reason people have called him nuts goes far beyond that.
Wu announced in the spring of 2012 that he would slash enrollment at UC Hastings by 20%. It’s a bold move, but not particularly singular. (In 2013, 54% of law schools cut the size of the entering class, according to a Kaplan Test Prep survey of law school admissions officers). Rather, the rationale behind the move, revealed in a 2012 interview with USA Today, was what triggered admiration, astonishment, and even a little acrimony: “The critics of legal education are right…There are far too many law schools and there are too many law students, and we need to do something about that,” Wu said. Coming from the dean of a highly respected law school, it sounded more than a little crazy.
He compares law schools to Detroit autoworkers who wrongly assumed that when gasoline prices came down people would flock to American-made cars again. “They mistook the cycle for the long-term trend,” Wu points out. “I believe we’re living through profound structural change. It’s not a cycle,” he says of legal education. In other words, law schools can’t keep plugging away on their current course and expect everything to be hunky-dory after the recession. Legal education will have to undergo dramatic change, too.
Wu is certainly a solid pick for leading the change charge. He digs “brilliant and crazy ideas.” He’s not particularly good at sitting still (he’s already made tea and adjusted the office humidifier within the first 15 minutes of an interview). And he has a clear affinity for schools that buck the standard mold. “Most institutions of higher education are generic. If you swapped the logo, the color, and the name in their catalogs for that of a rival down the street, no one would ever know the difference,” he says. “I’m interested in institutions with a mission, a sense of identity, a sense of community, a reason for belonging.”
It may sound like airy rhetoric, except his resume backs him up. Wu taught at Howard University, the nation’s leading historically black college, and China’s Peking University School of Transnational Law, which conducts class in English and awards an American J.D. Wu has also been a trustee at Gallaudet University, America’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing, and currently serves as trustee for Deep Springs College, a selective, all-male Ivy League feeder school situated on a student-run ranch near Death Valley. UC Hastings also occupies a unique niche–the law school remains separate from the University of California after the founding benefactor, Justice Serranus Clinton Hastings, stipulated that the campus must remain in San Francisco and could not be governed by the University of California regents. Even today, the school is run by a nine-member Board of Directors, and Wu holds the dual title of dean and chancellor.
In order to really understand Wu, you first have to understand Vincent Chin, the 27-year-old Chinese American from a working class family in Detroit who became a martyr in 1982. He was not a model minority, according to Wu. “If he were white, he’d be a good old boy: He liked to drink. He had a temper. He drove a little too fast. He flirted with women. He dropped out of college, but he settled down,” Wu adds. Chin was getting married. In a final fling, he celebrated his bachelor party at a strip club with friends. There, a drunken confrontation turned deadly: Two white autoworkers chased Chin down to a nearby McDonald’s and bludgeoned him with a baseball bat, cracking his skull open. Chin died from the wounds, and the wedding guests attended his funeral instead of his nuptials. The perpetrators meanwhile got off with three years of probation and a $3,000 fine. The incident incited the Asian American community and inspired Frank Wu to make a career out of seeking justice. He’s now researching a book on Vincent Chin and wrote an op-ed about why Chin matters for The New York Times.
Wu clearly saw a bit of himself in Chin. Born in 1967, he grew up in the Detroit suburbs as the only Asian American family on his block. His father worked in the auto industry; his parents had moved to the U.S. from mainland China by way of Taiwan. Wu vividly recalls being “teased and taunted, called ‘chink’ and ‘Jap,’ and being asked if I eat dogs, if my parents were communists, how I could see with eyes like that, and that sort of thing.” “In an era before multiculturalism was celebrated, you sort of grow up thinking that you’re crazy,” he says. Vincent Chin’s experience clearly struck a chord: “It was mistaken identity twice over. I heard it as a kid all of the time, ‘Well, you all look alike.’ And here someone Chinese was mistaken for Japanese, and someone who was American was mistaken for a foreigner … That’s why I became a lawyer,” he says.