Southern California political, media and legal circles have been in a dither over the selection of liberal law professor Erwin Chemerinsky as dean of UC Irvine’s new law school, his de-selection after protests by conservative groups and his re-selection on Monday.
Setting aside the demonstrable fact that California needs another public law school like it needs another drought, it has been an unseemly situation at best, raising all sorts of questions about academic freedom.
Conservatives complained that Chemerinsky’s initial hiring by UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake was an affront, citing his years of legal and political activism on the left. Even Ronald George, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, became entangled in the uproar, with anti-Chemerinsky forces citing George’s pointed criticism of his treatise on death penalty law.
Conservative Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who had clashed with Chemerinsky in the past, sent an e-mail to Drake that, his spokesman said, “expressed his dismay with the choice for the dean of the law school and suggested that this was the wrong decision and it should be changed.”
Drake then canceled the appointment but insisted – to wide disbelief – that it had anything to do with the backlash. “His exact words were, ‘You’ve proven too politically controversial for this to work,’” Chemerinsky told the New York Times.
Predictably, there was a counter-backlash of pro-Chemerinsky sentiment. Hundreds of UC Irvine professors and students signed an open letter to Drake last Friday demanding a reversal of the decision. “You have failed to defend the integrity of the university, its recruitment process and the sanctity of academic freedom,” the letter said.”
Chemerinsky fed the furor himself with an article in the Los Angeles Times, saying, “The whole point of academic freedom is that professors — and yes, even deans — should be able to speak out on important issues.”
As the counter-pressure mounted on Friday, Drake met with Chemerinsky. On Monday, they jointly announced that Chemerinsky will come to Irvine after all. “Our new law school will be founded on the bedrock principle of academic freedom,” said their joint statement. “The chancellor reiterated his lifelong, unqualified commitment to academic freedom, which extends to every faculty member, including deans and other senior administrators.”
A victory for academic freedom? Seemingly so, but it would appear that among UC faculty members the principle should be applied only to those on the political left, judging by what was happening simultaneously a few hundred miles to the north at another University of California campus.
Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, had been invited by UC Regent Richard Blum (husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein) to address a private Board of Regents dinner at UC Davis. When faculty members objected, Summers was disinvited.
Summers, former secretary of the treasury, resigned from Harvard last year after a lengthy clash with its faculty over his remarks about the suitability of women for careers in engineering and other technical fields. Summers said his remarks were misinterpreted and apologized, but was forced out of the presidency anyway.
“I was appalled and stunned that someone like Summers would even be invited to speak to the regents,” Professor Maureen Stanton, an organizer of the protest, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The hypocrisy is self-evident. Liberal UC faculty members believe in academic freedom for liberals, but someone deemed to be politically incorrect should be barred from even speaking to a private dinner.
And in both cases, those running the university ran for cover.
(Contact Dan Walters at firstname.lastname@example.org. Back columns available at www.sacbee.com/walters.)