Blogs > HNN > The Real Scandal Behind the Chemerinsky Affair

Sep 17, 2007 6:40 pm

The Real Scandal Behind the Chemerinsky Affair

Now that Duke University Law School Professor Erwin Chemerinsky has been rehired by UCI as the Dean of the newly established Law School, the Chancellor and the UC administration no doubt would like, in the words of the joint statement by Chancellor Michael Drake and Professor Chemerinsky that announced his rehiring, “to put recent events behind us and immediately begin to focus on our shared vision of creating a law school.”

Not so fast.

Since Drake's decision to rescind the original offer to Chmerinsky was made public, the entire campus has been asking the same question, which have yet to be answered to most anyone's satisfaction: Why would a Chancellor known for his political savvy (as evidenced by his handling of the liver transplant scandal at UCI several years ago) and defense of freedom of speech (he proudly brought President Jimmy Carter to UCI last spring as a Distinguished Speaker despite vociferous opposition from the OC Jewish community), cave into pressure from California conservatives on an issue that is a bedrock of the University's mission—protecting academic freedom against any outside interference?

In a hastily arranged meeting with hundreds of concerned faculty members, the Chancellor explained that his decision to rescind his offer to Chemerinsky was both “mine alone”—that is, no outside pressure was put on him—and a “purely management” decision, one not reflective of his Chemerinsky's political views. Drake even took the unusual step of informing the audience that his own politics were as liberal as the erstwhile Dean's in support of his argument that politics played no part of his decision.

Few people present bought this explanation; and neither did Professor Chemerinsky, who told the press that Drake had told him it would be a “bloody fight” to confirm his hiring with the UC Regents because of his political views. And the Chancellor wasn't helped by his legalistic sounding answer to the question of outside pressure: “No one called me and told me to fire him.”

This is no doubt true, but it sure leaves a lot of other ways in which pressure could have been applied and the intended message gotten. And as the names of those people began to be reported in the Times and other publications—including California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and several prominent Orange county Republicans—Drake's claim to have made a politics-free decision was further undermined.

The nail in the coffin of this explanation was Drake's statement that it wasn't Chemerinsky's views that got him into trouble, the supposedly “polarizing” tone of his arguments. But isn't vociferously arguing one's case the bedrock principle of the American adversarial legal system?

I and most of my colleagues are happy that the Chancellor and Professor Chemerinsky have worked through their differences in a manner that would allow him to accept the position without any “gag order” being imposed on his writings—stylistically as well as substantively. And while many people still want Drake to resign, I do not think that Chancellor Drake should lose his job because of this affair. As someone who works in Middle East studies, the most frequently and violently attacked of all academic fields, I can sympathize with the kind of intense pressure the Chancellor was likely under.

In fact, it is not the Chancellor with whom I'm most angry. Rather it's the dozen unnamed advisers with whom the Chancellor said he consulted in the process of reaching his decision to rescind the offer to Chemerinsky, almost none of whom—including the President of the UC System, Robert Dynes—have come forward publicly to defend him, who have the most to answer for.

Every individual, including the Chancellor, is entitled to make errors in judgment. That's the point of consulting with advisers and colleagues, who can help you catch these kinds of mistakes before they come back to haunt you. Unlike President Bush (to take the most obvious example), who rarely if ever consults with anyone who might challenge his point of view, the Chancellor did his due diligence in reaching out, in his words, to a variety of senior educators and administrators before making his decision.

So here's my question: How could twelve highly intelligent senior University personnel give such stupid advice? How could thirteen leading members of the educational establishment (including the Chancellor) be so clueless as to how the firing of Chemerinsky would be viewed, both by professors, and by the conservatives who put the pressure on Drake to make this decision?

Don't these people know that there is a war going on in the trenches of academia between scholars and outside forces, made up exclusively, it needs to be stressed, by neoconservatives, who are trashing the most treasured and valuable traditions of the Western academic tradition in order to stifle opposition to their neoconservative ideology and policies? If it's not just the White House trying to silence science advisers, it's DePaul University denying tenure to a professor it acknowledges to be an excellent scholar and teacher because, like Chemerinsky, he writes in a supposedly “polarising” manner. It's Barnard and Columbia coming under vicious outside attacks because of the political views of Palestinian professors.

It's my own university being told by several prominent Jewish donors that they'd no longer give money after I brought three leading Israeli academics—none of whom are controversial figures in Israel—to campus for a panel on imagining new solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's the conservatives in Congress demanding that political supervision be written into the reauthorization of government funding for language study and research on the Middle East; or commentators like David Horowitz, who have absolutely no training on the Middle East, and who admit to not even doing their own research and writing in books such as The 101 Most Dangerous Professors (for which I was listed as #46 based on research by an assistant he'd never met), coordinating intellectually nonsensical and morally irresponsible “Islamo-fascism awareness weeks” on campuses across the country.

How could any, never mind all (according to Drake) these senior administrators think that rescinding a prestigious appointment to a leading public intellectual would not cause an outcry among academics—including some principled conservatives—across the country? Are they that removed from the political realities that academics on the ground floors and basements of the Ivory Tower confront today?

Not knowing what else to think, a colleague left last Thursday's meeting with Chancellor Drake and offered me the following analysis: “This was a sting planned by Drake and Chemerinsky together, to expose the pressure by conservatives and use the public outcry to prevent them from attempting something similar in the future.” Before disappearing into a crowd of fellow professors to hash out the options before us, he said, “You watch. Drake will reoffer him the job.”

I hope for Chancellor Drake's sake that my friend was as right on the first part of his argument as the second. Either way, at least a dozen of the country's leading educators would themselves seem to be in need an education about the importance of defending academic freedom, today more than ever before.

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Ed Darrell - 9/22/2007

A sting?

I think the old rule about not attributing to design and evil intent that can be explained by stupidity and ineptness should apply here. My experience in top-level shin-kicking politics is more than 15 years old, but it all has the earmarks of Republicans saying "I'm in power, dammit, and what else is power for but to stop people like Chemerinsky from getting positions like this?" and then being found out, publicly.

But, sting? Wow. That would require both Chemerinsky and Drake to be a lot smarter than Karl Rove and Henry Kissinger put together. Maybe we should let that story stand. It'll keep idiots from trying to interfere.