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Calif. Law School Dumps Chemerinsky as Founding DeanIn wake of $20M gift from prominent Republican, officials decide scholar's politics are incompatible with offered job
Erwin Chemerinsky, the prominent legal scholar slated to be founding dean at University of California, Irvine's new law school, had his offer withdrawn because of controversy created by his well-known liberal views, Chemerinsky said Wednesday. A professor at Duke University School of Law, Chemerinsky accepted the post last week after months of talks, but on Tuesday UC-Irvine's chancellor Michael Drake asked him to give it up. Drake said the fact Chemerinsky was a "lightning rod" entered into the decision.
The Recorder2007-09-13 12:00:00 AM
Erwin Chemerinsky, the prominent legal scholar slated to be founding dean at University of California, Irvine's new law school, had his offer withdrawn because of controversy created by his well-known liberal views, Chemerinsky said Wednesday.
A professor at Duke University School of Law, Chemerinsky accepted the post last week after months of talks, but on Tuesday UC-Irvine's chancellor Michael Drake asked him to give it up.
"He said I proved to be too politically controversial," Chemerinsky said in a phone interview from his Durham, N.C., home.
Drake told The Recorder he didn't back away from Chemerinsky because of the professor's views on any specific subject. But the fact Chemerinsky was a "lightning rod" did enter into the decision.
"I needed someone I could work with to build the school, and he wasn't the person," Drake said. "I wish only I had made the decision earlier."
Christopher Edley Jr., dean of University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law who has been involved with the new law school -- and was handpicked by Chemerinsky to serve on his advisory board -- said it wasn't about Chemerinsky's "political leanings or ideology, which everyone knew" about.
"I think key people lost confidence that he would be willing to shed his high personal public profile in the service of the law school -- whether that was the right or wrong conclusion," Edley said, though he declined to identify the individuals who opposed Chemerinsky.
Edley continued: "At the end of the day, the chancellor had to have confidence that Erwin would be able to earn the trust, loyalty and investment of a diverse constituency, and for a startup venture that's an exceptionally delicate proposition."
UC-Irvine's Donald Bren School of Law is set to open its doors in fall 2009. The school was recently named for Donald Bren, a real estate mogul and major Republican donor who gave $20 million to the law school last month.
Drake said the school didn't involve Bren in any hiring decisions. And a spokesman for Bren said "he doesn't know enough about Mr. Chemerinsky to even have any opinion about him, and has not expressed an opinion pro or con to anyone."
Chemerinsky's appointment was set to be voted on by the UC Regents at their meeting next week. But Drake warned Chemerinsky that there would be a "bloody fight" over his appointment, Chemerinsky said. Several regents did not return phone calls for comment.
On Wednesday, Drake said he was wrong to give Chemerinsky the impression that the prospect of a board fight derailed his job. "I want to specifically disavow the notion that the regents had anything to do with this," Drake said.
Chemerinsky said he wasn't told who opposed his appointment, and he declined to speculate.
"I'm obviously sad, because I was excited about the job," Chemerinsky said. "I'm angry because I don't think anyone's political views should be a reason for getting or being denied a position."
Some observers say the snafu is a blow to the fledgling law school.
"I'm really disappointed in the folks down there in Irvine that they would get themselves in this situation," said Nell Newton, dean of Hastings College of the Law. "I don't think it'll help the school, and I don't think it'll help attract a really great dean."
Newton said a heavyweight like Chemerinsky would've made it easy to attract talented professors to the law school.
Carter Phillips, a Sidley Austin partner in Washington, D.C., who was also going to serve on the advisory board, said Chemerinsky would've given the law school "instant credibility."
"I'm disappointed for the law school because I think he would've made an excellent dean," Phillips said. "That's not to say that they can't find someone else who could do a good job and go in with consensus support."
Chemerinsky's supporters said they didn't think his political leanings would interfere with his ability to be a good dean. Even Viet Dinh, a well-known conservative law professor at Georgetown University Law Center who agreed to be on Chemerinsky's advisory board, said it was a good fit.
"I disagree with Erwin on so many things, but with all the many panels and discussions I've had with him, I've never found him to be any other thing than a straight-up academic," Dinh said. "I think he is one of the great scholars of our days."
Chemerinsky said he chose an advisory board with people like Dinh so that it would be an "ideologically diverse group." Among the other members were Deanell Reece Tacha, chief judge of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; John Jeffries Jr., dean of the University of Virginia School of Law; and Judge Harry Edwards of the D.C. Circuit.
Drake flew to Durham on Tuesday to deliver the news to Chemerinsky. The two met in the lobby of an airport hotel. Chemerinsky said he was a little surprised, since at "several of the interviews, people raised issues about political beliefs," and more so because "it's not like my political beliefs are hidden from anybody."
After the meeting, Drake asked him to tell everyone that "we both agreed that it couldn't work," Chemerinsky said. But the professor, who will remain at Duke, wouldn't agree. He said he wasn't going to fight Drake's decision, but he wasn't going to cover it up, either. "All I wanted to do was tell the truth about what happened."