Trustees | Intellectual Diversity

Hiring Debacle Prompts Damage Control and Conflicting Views at UC-Irvine

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  September 17, 2007 by Katherine Mangen

Officials at the University of California at Irvine are scrambling to try to undo the damage caused by the chancellor’s sudden decision last week to rescind a contract offered to Erwin Chemerinsky, a prominent Duke University law professor, to be Irvine’s inaugural law-school dean. One possibility that was reportedly being pursued: rescinding the rescission and hiring the outspoken liberal after all.

Whether he would consider such an offer is another matter. “I really don’t know how I’d feel about that,” the Duke professor said on Saturday. “This has been one of the longest and hardest weeks of my life, and it’s hard to start thinking in those terms.”

Mr. Chemerinsky has accused the chancellor, Michael V. Drake, of caving in to political pressure to dump him after he had signed a contract with the university (The Chronicle, September 13). He said the chancellor had told him he had not realized how “politically controversial” the professor would be, and specifically mentioned an op-ed piece criticizing the Bush administration that Mr. Chemerinsky had written shortly before he was offered the job.

The chancellor has insisted he was not swayed by politics and simply made a “management decision.” The two offered their contradictory accounts of the split in separate op-ed articles in Friday’s Los Angeles Times, as law professors and higher-education officials across the political spectrum condemned the move in blogs and on op-ed pages.

Despite the chancellor’s assertion that politics had played no role in his decision, details have emerged about efforts by local conservatives to derail Mr. Chemerinsky’s appointment. Michael D. Antonovich, a Republican who is a Los Angeles County supervisor, sent an e-mail message last month to about two dozen friends and constituents asking how to stop the appointment, a spokesman for him confirmed on Saturday.

Putting the Duke professor in charge of the new law school “would be like appointing Al Qaeda in charge of homeland security,” Mr. Antonovich said in a voice message left with the Associated Press.

His spokesman, Tony Bell, confirmed the accuracy of that quote. He said Mr. Antonovich did not know the chancellor and did not contact anyone at the university to try to sway their opinions. In his message to supporters, “he suggested this was a poor choice for dean of a public law school who is responsible for creating a diverse staff and curriculum,” Mr. Bell said. “He would have been polarizing because of his left-wing ideology.”

The Times reported that 20 prominent local Republicans had also organized to try to block the appointment, and had circulated the chancellor’s cellphone number.

Expressions of Confidence and No Confidence

Joseph F. DiMento, a lawyer and professor of social ecology at Irvine who was tapped to be one of the law school’s founding professors, confirmed on Saturday that efforts were under way to reinstate Mr. Chemerinsky.

“If both the chancellor and Erwin could feel that they are not compromising their positions, it’s possible something could be worked out,” said Mr. DiMento, who will work with the new dean to hire more faculty members and plan the curriculum. The chancellor could not be reached for comment on Saturday and has not responded to interview requests.

Mr. Chemerinsky said he has nothing against the chancellor personally. “I have nothing but admiration for Michael Drake, and I feel terrible for what he’s been going through.”

The executive committee of the university’s Academic Senate is scheduled to meet this week and is expected to register its disapproval of the chancellor’s actions.

“Something needs to be done to put this behind us so it doesn’t fester,” Mr. DiMento said.

An Irvine professor who serves on the search committee for a new dean said she would be pleased if Mr. Chemerinsky’s contract were reinstated.

“I have to think this could happen, and we should do what we can to make it happen,” said Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor of psychology and social behavior. “I think it would be very courageous of the chancellor to say, ‘I made a mistake, and I want to rectify it.'” Some professors said they worry that the law school’s planned 2009 opening could be delayed if the search committee has to restart its work.

Meanwhile, the president of the University of California system, Robert C. Dynes, issued a statement of support for the chancellor, calling him “an honorable man and one of the finest academic administrators I know.” He said Dr. Drake had assured him that his decision was free of political pressure.

Hundreds of concerned professors and students on the Irvine campus remain unconvinced. They signed an open letter that decried “the deep violation both of the integrity of the university and of the intrusion of outrageously one-sided politics and unacceptable ideological considerations” into the hiring process. The letter said Dr. Drake’s action would “all but torpedo the appointment of a dean of the new law school of Chemerinsky’s quality.”

Dueling Viewpoints

The chancellor defended his decision in a hastily called meeting of the university’s Academic Senate on Thursday. In a statement published in the Los Angeles Times, the chancellor said the angry reactions were based on “assumption, conjecture, and hearsay.”

“I made a management decision–not an ideological or political one–to rescind the offer to Professor Chemerinsky,” Dr. Drake wrote. “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.”

He added that his decision had had nothing to do with the professor’s “place on the political spectrum, which is, in fact, quite similar to my own.” The chancellor also denied Mr. Chemerinsky’s contention that the university had violated his academic freedom, and said professors and administrators with more liberal views than his serve in positions of authority at Irvine.

Mr. Chemerinsky countered that the chancellor’s exact words to him were that the Duke professor had proved to be “too politically controversial.” Mr. Chemerinsky said the only example Dr. Drake cited was the professor’s August 16 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that rebuked the attorney general at the time, Alberto R. Gonzales, over a plan that, the professor said, could make it harder for death-row inmates to get their cases reviewed.

In his piece in Friday’s Times, Mr. Chemerinsky said that the Gonzales essay, which was published the day he was offered the job, had been written before he heard from Dr. Drake, but that it shouldn’t have mattered anyway. “The whole point of academic freedom is that professors–and, yes, even deans–should be able to speak out on important issues,” Mr. Chemerinsky wrote. “It would never have occurred to me that arguing against a proposed federal regulation on behalf of those on death row would be deemed objectionable.”

The Los Angeles Times also reported on Saturday that California Chief Justice Ronald M. George had complained about a factual error that he said Mr. Chemerinsky had made in that op-ed piece. His complaint was sent to a prominent attorney who was going to be on Mr. Chemerinsky’s advisory board, who in turn shared it with the chancellor, the Times reported. Contacted by the Times, Mr. Chemerinsky defended the accuracy of his essay and said it would be inappropriate for the State Supreme Court justices to try to influence the process of hiring a dean.

The Duke professor said he had accepted the newspaper’s invitation to write an opinion piece on the withdrawal of his appointment last week because he worried about the precedent his case could set. “My concern is that the message from this episode, especially for my more junior colleagues who may aspire to be deans someday or, for that matter, judges, is that if you speak out–liberal or conservative–you may lose your chance at a position that you really want.”

Defense and Offense

Amid the sea of protests, one prominent law dean defended the chancellor’s decision in a letter he sent on Wednesday to faculty members at his institution. Christopher F. Edley Jr., dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, said the chancellor had told him no one pressured him to drop the Duke professor, even though some people were skeptical about the choice.

“Chancellor Drake was nevertheless prepared to go forward with the nomination, but for the fact that he lost his confidence that Erwin fully embraced what was entailed in moving from public intellectual to community builder and institutional leader,” Mr. Edley wrote. He added that when he was in the running for dean at Berkeley, he kept a lower public profile and went out of his way to reassure skeptics that he would be open-minded.

While Mr. Edley, who like Mr. Chemerinsky describes himself as liberal, defended the decision to break the contract, a conservative-leaning lobbying group blasted the move. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which focuses on academic freedom and accountability in higher education (The Chronicle, November 10, 2006), sent a letter on Thursday to the California regents calling on the board “to undertake a systematic review of the integrity of the academic hiring process and the state of intellectual diversity at UC.”

“UC needs to get its act together,” the council’s president, Anne D. Neal, said on Friday. In the letter, she added: “Universities must encourage and foster opposing viewpoints. When–as here–administrative actions suggest that the university is averse to the robust exchange of ideas, corrective action is in order.”

David Horowitz, the well-known conservative activist, initially called the contract flip-flop “an outrage” and a violation of Mr. Chemerinsky’s academic freedom. But then, in an online article, Mr. Horowitz waffled when he found out that he disagreed with a stand the professor had taken in a case involving Israel.


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