When I learned that UC Irvine had just hired Erwin Chemerinsky to become the first Dean of their newly created Law School, I was very impressed. It’s quite rare for any law school to get one of the greatest legal scholars of our day as its chief. To get someone of Chemerinsky’s stature to be the first dean of a new law school is an even greater coup. This is the real deal– a person who was going to put a beleaguered UC Irvine on the map and very quickly.
I didn’t think for a moment, “Wow, and now we’ll start putting out progressive lawyers to match the thousands being rubber-stamped out of conservative institutions, like those overrunning the federal government and the executive branch, in particular.” What I thought, and apparently like so many others who have worked with Chemerinsky or heard him speak, is that this University will become an institution of excellence and pride, with thoughtful and quality lawyers. With a dean of Chemerinsky’s reputation, this school will quickly put itself on the map. Go UC Irvine! … Not.
Just a week after announcing that the position had been offered to Chemerinsky, who then accepted the offer and planned to return to California after a 4 year hiatus at Duke University Law School, the Chancellor of UC Irvine, Michael V. Drake, rescinded the offer. This questionable act sets academic freedom and integrity back into the Bush era. Professor Chemerinsky is a great legal scholar, an academic expert who the L.A. Times says stands out not for his liberalism, but for “the intellectual rigor of his analysis and the effectiveness of his argument”. For more on this excellent editorial, click here
Apparently he is too controversial and too independent for the Chancellor’s liking. What? You’ve landed one of the best constitutional scholars of our day, an expert in an area of the law which is fast disappearing into hysterical oblivion, and you decide he’s “not the right fit for the University”? That, of course, begs the question: What is the right fit for this University? Is it the embarassing controversies that have befallen the institution and in particular, its ethically challenged medical research facilities, that have plagued the school for over a decade? Is it the inadequate way UC Irvine handled the Muslim/Jewish furor this past spring? Or is it the school’s mediocre standing in the ranks of the University of California? Whatever the case, here comes an enormously well-respected legal scholar–by conservative and liberal scholars alike–to bring excellence to the school and he’s unceremoneoulsy dumped because the Chancellor suddenly decides he’s too liberal? What has happened to academic freedom? When did it become wrong to express one’s beliefs and opinions—especially in defense of the constitution of this country? What happened to the pursuit of excellence in America-whether academia, politics or any other field of endeavor?
I am sure the irony of this is lost on very few. Here, in this day and age when the Bush adminstration has successfully stifled free speech, whether through FCC sanctions or uncontrolled wiretapping of people and organizations with whom it disagrees, we have seen our first amendment rights diminish almost daily. Whether through fear or intimidation, we are becoming a nation of lemmings. With the announcement that Ken Burns 14 hour documentary on war now has two versions, just in case the FCC disapproves of the language used by our soldiers in battle (as honestly portrayed in this documentary), we can only wonder what has happened to the most precious of our fundamental rights in this nation?
The irony here is that censorship is now being imposed by a public law school on a constitutional scholar because that esteemed scholar insists on exercising his constitutional rights. Is the fear of Professor Chemerinsky that he will bring in legal scholars who will assure that the students at this school understand what those rights are and seek excellence in their pursuit of it? Isn’t that exactly what a law school is supposed to do? After all, what is freedom if it isn’t the right to speak out without fear of retribution or sanction? Isn’t public discourse and debate exactly what this nation is founded on and what has made this nation great?
Michael Drake should be ashamed. This is a travesty. As a long-time supporter of the University of California, I am both embarassed and outraged at this turn of events. As California taxpayers, I think we all should be so.
The Regents of the University of California must take action. Their duties require nothing less than a full investigation of this matter, and the reinstatement of Professor Chemerinsky to the position he had been offered and had accepted. As conservative legal scholars are quickly coming to his defense, it is clear that this injustice and embarassment must be rectified.
If the University of California is to continue serving the people of California as the place where ideas and values are to be nurtured and promoted, where excellence in academia is pursued, where intellectual discourse is encouraged without fear or retribution, it must respond. If there is, indeed, any legitimate justification for its recission of Chemerinsky’s contract, then the University must divulge it and explain its actions fully. Anything short of that only reinforces the taint on the Chancellor’s actions. Otherwise, this act will be viewed as a dangerous precedent that will only weaken the University, both as an academic institution and as a bulwark of academic freedom.
With all the scandals it has endured recently, the Board of Regents must stand up quickly and loudly in the defense of its fundamental mission of seeking excellence and intellectual honesty. And, by the way, in this instance, it’s all about our Constitution as well. Maybe somebody with public responsibilities today will take a stand to protect that document. We can’t expect that from our Congress, apparently, but we can expect and demand it from our UC Regents. Time to act, folks, our academic integrity and future are at stake here.