Sunday, September 16, 2007

Note to U.C. Irvine: Don't Muzzle Chemerinsky

I have not weighed in until today on the calamity at U.C. Irvine that developed after Chancellor Michael Drake extended an offer to Erwin Chemerinsky (my former USC colleague) to be the founding Dean of the new U.C. Irvine Law School, only to fire him a week after Chemerinsky signed a contract with Irvine. It seems clear from the reporting that the turn-about was due to pressure from right-wing figures in California, unhappy with Chemerinsky's politics. ("Making Chemerinsky the head of the law school 'would be like appointing al-Qaida in charge of homeland security,' Michael Antonovich, a longtime Republican member of the county Board of Supervisors, said in a voicemail left with The Associated Press." Hat tip.) This matter has been covered extensively elsewhere, including here, here, here and here.

The news today is that overtures are being made to bring the parties back together, and many, including a New York Times op-ed, have argued that putting the Chemerinsky Deanship back on track is the only way Irvine can move forward and establish a credible new law school. Meanwhile, the LA Times today carries a story on the nature of law school deanships, and whether or not deans should be outspoken. Two models emerge: the outspoken dean, and the dean who removes herself from the public stage to focus on internal law school matters.

Whether one model or another is the best model for Irvine is no longer the relevant question. They selected a candidate who embodies the model of a public deanship, and it is Chemerinsky's very prominence that would have immediately put U.C. Irvine's new law school on the map.

Chancellor Drake seems to have suffered buyer's remorse. He selected one kind of dean, but now wants another. Having selected a high-profile dean, whose national visibility comes from his public advocacy, the Chancellor has now expressed a desire that Irvine's first dean retreat from a national public stage. The Chancellor certainly could have selected a less visible dean for U.C. Irvine. But he didn't do that. If Irvine moves forward and tries to put the Chemerinsky Deanship back on track, a condition cannot be putting Chemerinsky in a muzzle.

It was a brilliant move to recruit Chemerinsky in the first place. His very prominence would give UC Irvine's new law school wide exposure, in California and nation-wide, from its founding. The Chancellor can expect that the Dean will make the law school's interests his first priority, something Chemerinsky has pledged to do. Deans can use their public role to enhance their law schools, especially a new school trying to create a national reputation from scratch. What the Chancellor cannot expect is to take one model of deanship, embodied by the Dean he hired, and after the contract is signed, morph it into another.