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Friday, September 14, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

As an alumnus of the University of California at Irvine, I have to say, this isn’t the way to get the school into the news: Scholars Decry Law School’s About-Face on New Dean:

Scholars across the political spectrum protested what they called an assault on academic freedom after the University of California at Irvine withdrew a job offer from a liberal professor who wrote an op-ed criticizing the Bush administration.

Faculty members were furious, and blogs and editorial pages hummed Thursday with news that constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, 54, would not become dean of the University of California’s first new law school in 40 years.

Funny, to hear it told by David Horowitz, the academy is a bastion of liberal power. Ah well. (Although it should be noted that Chemerinsky isn’t one of Horowitz’s 101 most dangerous academics in his book The Professors-indeed, he doesn’t even make the index). In all fairness, Horowitz comments on Chemerinsky and UCI here and initially thought UCI’s move an odd one, although he backs off a bit in an update.

Seriously, the stupid thing here is that UCI hired Chemerinsky and then, after some controversy over the op-ed, rescinded the offer:

On Aug. 16, Chemerinsky was offered the job as dean of the University of California at Irvine law school, scheduled to open in 2009. The same day he got the job offer, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed by Chemerinsky urging California to reject a plan by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that would, he argued, make it harder for those on death row to have their cases reviewed in federal court.

According to Chemerinsky, the UC-Irvine chancellor told him on Tuesday that he “knew I was liberal but didn’t know how controversial I would be.” The chancellor also said “some conservative opposition was developing,” and the University of California regents would have “a bloody fight” over approving him, Chemerinsky said.

Please. For one, thing, where was the due diligence before tendering the offer? It wasn’t as if Chemerinsky’s views were an unknown quantity. Indeed, a highly visible, even somewhat controversial, Dean would probably have been good to put the law school on the map, assuming that said Dean was qualified, and there is no doubt that Chemerinsky is qualified.

Indeed, based on the article, it would seem that regardless of the ideological stripes of legal scholar, they see the Chancellor’s move in a negative lilght.

To wit:

“Even though I agree with him on only about one out of 100 issues, I believe he is one of the top legal minds in the United States,” said Hugh Hewitt, a law professor at Chapman University and host of a daily radio talk show. “This is clearly a boneheaded move, and how do you resurrect a situation like this?”

Look, if Hugh Hewitt can’t find an ideological reason to oppose this guy, then there isn’t such an argument to make.

Hewitt wasn’t the only conservative law prof who thought the move to be an odd one:

Douglas W. Kmiec, a conservative Constitutional scholar and law professor at Pepperdine University who has often debated Chemerinsky called him “a gentle soul, a splendid scholar and a person with a fine legal mind. . . . And I say this as someone who generally disagrees with where his mind is coming from.” Kmiec wrote in a Los Angeles Times editorial on Thursday that the withdrawal of the job offer “is a betrayal of everything a great institution like the University of California represents.”

Law prof Stephen Bainbridge also comments:

Chemerinsky’s a very liberal guy, with whose stated views I routinely disagree, but he’s not out there on the radical fringe. Moreover, to fire someone because they’re a target of political attacks sets the worst kind of precedent for all of us in legal education - on both sides of the aisle - who dare express political views.


Another law prof, Brian Leiter correctly notes:

Chemerinsky was a far more prominent scholar than the University had any reason to suppose it would be able to land for a brand new law school.

It’s fair to say that the future does not look bright for the planned UC Irvine law school. Who will take the job now given this history?

A fair point. (Leiter’s post is quite comprehensive on the whole situation, and worth a read if one is further interested in the story).

All of this makes the move by UCI to one of nervous cowardice-not the kind of thing you want from schools seeking to be elite-level institutions. (Update: Jack Balkin sees the firing as “cowardice” as well).

Chancellor Drake has a column in the LAT in which he purports to explain the “management decision” to rescind the offer:

Let me set the record straight. I made a management decision — not an ideological or political one — to rescind the offer to Professor Chemerinsky. The decision was mine and mine alone. It was not based on pressure from donors, politicians or the University of California Board of Regents. It was a culmination of discussions — with many people over a period of time — that convinced me that Professor Chemerinsky and I would not be able to partner effectively to build a world-class law school at UC Irvine.

Two things strike me: 1) surely that is the kind of thing a manager ought to do before tendering an offer, and 2) the phrase “world-class” (which is used twice in the piece) cracks me up because UCI was obsessed with becoming a “world-class institution” (a phase I heard I don’t know how many times) back when I was there in 1986-1990. Some things don’t change, I guess.

The LAT also has a comprehensive story on the situation:
Furor disrupts plans for UCI school of law, which includes the following:

The search for Chemerinsky took nine months before a formal agreement was reached, and search committee members said they would now probably start again from scratch.

“We had three other finalists, and one of them would have definitely done it a week ago,” said psychology professor Elizabeth F. Loftus, a member of the committee. “If you asked them today, I don’t know. I don’t think the law school will be derailed, but who knows what’s going to happen next?”

Although Drake has denied that he took action under pressure from conservatives, Loftus said Thursday that the chancellor told the committee during an emergency meeting Wednesday night that he was forced to make the decision by outside forces whom he did not name. A second member of the committee confirmed Loftus’ account to The Times but asked to remain anonymous.

I can imagine the joy of being on that committee for nine months and then finding oneself in this position. And it seems quite clear that political pressure was brought to bear from somewhere.

And the notion that the Board of Regents was the problem is a dodge:

Under UC procedures, the authority to select a dean falls to the chancellor, and the candidate is not subject to approval by the regents, a university spokesman said. The regents are required to approve any salaries above $205,000. The board was scheduled to consider Chemerinsky’s salary at an upcoming meeting because the sum would have been above that threshold.

And, in general, Boards of Regents tend to defer to Chancellors on these types of issues.

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  1. I don’t know anything about the guy, but since when is criticizing Gonzales considered controversial?

    Comment by Greg Weeks — Friday, September 14, 2007 @ 3:20 pm

  2. Good point! :)

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Friday, September 14, 2007 @ 3:23 pm

  3. It feels like there’s more here than is in the public domain here. Everybody seems to agree that his views were well known (though I had never heard of him). I’m going to make some guesses based on my experience, probably having nothing to do with this case.

    This feels like there may have been a testy private conversation that deteriorated further than either wished. It sounds like Drake then decided “I’m not going to be able to work with this guy” and then went looking for a reason to make the change.

    Having had to “terminate employment relationships” with about 20 folks (several friends) over the years it’s tempting to find a reason other than the real one. The real reason may be “You can’t hold up your end when we do X” but it comes out “The Morons in Management don’t recognize how good you are.”

    My overall guess is that after the initial post offer conversations Drake decided that working with Chemerinsky was going to bring more headache than getting rid of him, and making a quick cut with a sharp knife is the way to do it if a cut must be made. Now Drake is in the position of acting like there was a good institutional reason for making a move.

    Comment by Buckland — Friday, September 14, 2007 @ 5:32 pm

  4. The only good thing about this is the almost universal condemnation of it from all quarters.

    UCI could have handled this worse, I am sure . . . I just cannot see how off the top of my head.

    Comment by Steven L. — Friday, September 14, 2007 @ 7:26 pm

  5. I do not posit to fully understand the complexities that fall upon universities. But at the point where upon appearance it seems purse strings and political pressures are affecting clear judgment, something is amiss.

    The university has advanced that its law school is the first “public law school in California in 40 years.” Seeing as though the California Postsecondary Education Commission has voiced its opinion on the school in a negative manner, along with many others in California, the decision to oust Chemerinsky, who would do wonders for the reputation of the university, is nothing but foolish.

    To borrow some wisdom from a slogan used several years ago in a California student campaign, I have to ask the question: Whose university is this? The answer that the administration needs to soon realize is that this is OUR university. It belongs to the faculty, the staff, the current students, the alumni, and not least, the citizens of the State of California.

    It is these people that have built UC Irvine’s bridges since 1965. The torch in the university seal is meant to represent the light that education sheds, not to serve as a new appropriated symbol for the bridge burning the university has engaged in. I just ask that UC Irvine administration handle its torch with care in the future.

    Comment by Christina Gagnier — Friday, September 14, 2007 @ 7:48 pm

  6. Red-faced Anteaters

    UCI’s new law school offers deanship to Edwin Chemerinsky, then rescinds it.

    Trackback by Fruits and Votes — Sunday, September 16, 2007 @ 3:56 am

  7. […] When Anteaters Do Stupid Things […]

    Pingback by PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » The End of the UCI-Chemerinsky Saga — Tuesday, September 18, 2007 @ 10:56 am

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