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Alan White: Advocating for Economic Justice

May 1, 2013

Wander past Professor Alan White’s office after class and you may find his students deep in conversation about the recent financial crisis and foreclosure situation.

White, who started teaching contracts, commercial law, and bankruptcy last fall, knows plenty about the financial crisis, having advised Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke while serving on the Fed’s Consumer Advisory Council. From 2006 to 2008 he urged the Fed to do more to regulate subprime mortgages and the risk in the mortgage market.

Professor Alan White

Professor Alan White

“These loans were being made without regard to whether people could pay them back. [The Fed] had been very reluctant to do anything,” said White, even though the subprime mess had been brewing for a decade, with foreclosures occurring largely in communities of color. “Anybody who criticized these new mortgage products was seen as some sort of skunk at the garden party.”

It became a crisis, he said, after spreading to the suburbs and more economically vibrant parts of the country. By that time, not only were large numbers of homeowners feeling the impact; financial institutions and investors were also hurt. The Fed “finally issued regulations in 2008 after the whole thing exploded,” he said.

Academics aside, when students come to chat with White about the subprime fallout, there also may be a personal reason.

“Some students have had family problems with financial institutions and housing,” he said. Or students may have had experience helping homeowners or tenants in work they did before law school.

“CUNY students are different. They know why they want to be in law school and have a background doing social change or other community work,” noted White, who previously taught law at universities including Valparaiso, Drake, and Temple. “There’s also tremendous diversity in the student body—socially, economically, ethnically—compared to any other law school. It makes it a real pleasure to teach here.”

White himself practiced law for 24 years at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, after earning his J.D. from New York University. He represented thousands of low-income clients in bankruptcy, mortgage foreclosure, and related cases.

Given White’s career path, CUNY Law seemed a natural place to teach. There’s also a complementary aspect to how he fits in with the rest of the faculty.

“CUNY faculty are heavily focused on public law and the relationship between individuals and the state,” White said. “But I think the kind of work I’ve done on consumer law issues, regulation of banking and financial institutions, and how the world of money works also offers something valuable for students.”

— Paul Lin

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