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Chemerinsky Controversy Heats Up

Posted Sep 13, 2007 7:24 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Outrage over a decision by the University of California's newest law school to hire as dean—and then fire, before he ever took office—a prominent academic it now reportedly deems too liberal is seemingly at white heat. However, easy to miss in this firestorm is a claim that this isn't what actually happened.

Both liberal compadres and conservative critics of Erwin Chemerinsky's academic philosophy were appalled by the renowned constitutional law scholar's brief UC Irvine appointment, according to a Wall Street Journal Law Blog round-up today.

Among the conservatives, Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, wrote an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times today, eulogizing Chemerinsky and excoriating the as-yet-unopened Irvine institution. It will now, he predicts, have difficulty attracting another dean of the same caliber and desired faculty.

As detailed in an earlier ABAJournal.com post, UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake reportedly told Chemerinsky (according to Chemerinsky himself) that UC regents think he is too liberal. In a statement today, however, Drake denies that. Chemerinsky, he writes, was "not the right fit," but this had nothing to do with the Duke University law professor's political views or the UC regents.

Discussions "convinced me we could not effectively partner to build a world-class law school at UC Irvine," Drake writes. The closest he came to offering a further explanation for this "management decision" is in one of his concluding paragraphs:

"Independent thinking and autonomy are essential qualities that we seek in our law school dean. As academic leaders in guiding roles, however, we must also strive for a level of objectivity and balance that will inspire open discussion and empower our students to be courageous in seeking the truth. And we must ensure that our broader goals are not overshadowed by issues, personalities and polarization," he writes.

Few of Drake's many critics seem to find this elusive explanation persuasive.

"For now, all we know is that the big loser in this isn't Erwin Chemerinsky," says a Los Angeles Times columnist. "For reasons that cry for explanation, the tag goes to Michael Drake and, incredibly, the reputation of a school that doesn't even open for two years."

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