No Comment — September 15, 2007, 9:33 am

The Michael V. Drake Affair

The politically controversial chancellor of the University of California at Irvine, ophthalmologist Michael V. Drake, is now the center of a storm of controversy as a result of his decision first to hire and then to fire Erwin Chemerinsky as dean of the nascent UCI law school. Chemerinsky is an eminent figure in legal studies, and as an academic star clearly several magnitudes brighter than Drake. The decision to fire him thus provoked an immediate firestorm in the academic world. But adding insult to injury, Drake then proceeded to trash Chemerinsky in what was clearly intended as a posterior-covering op-ed run in the Los Angeles Times:

I made a management decision–not an ideological or political one–to rescind the offer to Professor Chemerinsky . . .

That claim is certainly untrue and is exposed by Drake’s other explanations—which all point to politics—and by his inability to articulate what “management” factors controlled the decision. Moreover, just one day earlier, in an interview with the Washington Post, Drake was slippery but not engaged in the rank deceit that marked the Los Angeles Times op-ed. He stated:

Chemerinsky’s accessibility to the media made [Drake] uneasy “because my feeling was, if we had a problem–as the last couple of days show–that it would be huge.”

So there you have it: the problem was Chemerinsky’s media prominence as a legal affairs commentator with a liberal perspective, critical of the administration. Of course other law schools around the country work feverishly to place their faculty members as credible experts commenting on such public affairs matters—it’s a critical indicator of success. So Drake’s comment is, from a management perspective, irrational. . . unless the concern is indeed not about Chemerinsky’s appearance but the content of his views.

And to whom is Drake pandering? Current public opinion polls suggest that roughly 70% of the American public believe that the Bush Administration has undermined the nation’s rule-of-law traditions, so Chemerinsky reflects a critical posture which has extremely deep and broad acceptance among the American public. He also reflects views, such as opposition to the death penalty, which are “substantial minority” positions. Chemerinsky’s political views have never been disguised. In fact he is a public figure and well known because of them—and in particular because of his representation of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame, who was the victim of a career-ending criminal act (disclosure of her covert status at the CIA) which, in the view of Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, was orchestrated and directed by Vice President Cheney. And on those points, too, roughly 60-70% of public opinion lines up with Chemerinsky.

So how did Chemerinsky get taken down? He was the target of a quiet political vendetta of a kind now practiced with increasing frequency and effect. And thanks to the Associated Press, we now know in some detail just how it was carried out:

A conservative Los Angeles County politician asked about two dozen people in an e-mail last month how to prevent the University of California, Irvine from hiring renowned liberal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky as its founding law school dean, a spokesman for the politician said Friday. 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.

He was not available for further comment on why he was getting involved in the situation at a campus located outside his jurisdiction in Orange County. Antonovich’s e-mail “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,” said Tony Bell, a spokesman for the supervisor.Antonovich, a local GOP stalwart, was first elected in 1980. He is a staunch conservative who has supported crackdowns on illegal immigrants, and voted against tax increases and HIV-prevention programs that distribute free syringes.

He clashed with Chemerinsky in the past when the professor supported the removal of a cross from the county seal. The Antonovich e-mail was disclosed after UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake withdrew an offer earlier this week to appoint Chemerinsky to the law school post. Chemerinsky, a frequent legal commentator who represented exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame, has repeatedly said Drake told him he was out because he was “too politically controversial” due to his liberal activism.

The dismissal outraged UCI’s faculty members, who launched an online petition urging Drake to reconsider his decision. By Friday, more than 350 faculty, students and alumni had signed the petition. Some were calling for Drake’s resignation. Faculty on the dean selection committee also warned that the opening date of the law school, set for 2009, might be delayed because of the time needed to find a new candidate. “What’s happened here is so outrageous, it’s beyond anything that anybody could have imagined happening,” said Mark P. Petracca, chair of the political science department.

But the career trajectory of Michael Drake also involved politically controversial stances. If Drake is known for one thing it is his staunch opposition to California’s Proposition 209. Approved by California voters in 1996, Proposition 209 prohibited discrimination based on race, ethnicity or sex—it was pushed to impede traditional affirmative action programs.

Drake’s views were politically controversial. Drake suffered no adverse consequences for this in his political career; indeed, he clearly benefited. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is penalizing a person for political views, particularly based on a perception that he is somehow out of step with the mainstream.

Actually, Chemerinsky’s views are clearly to the left of center, but not far from the center, particularly by the libertarian standards of California. But why should this matter? What should count is his scholarship, his administrative capabilities, his potential as a leader for a new institution.

But this is about something else. It is not the content of Chemerinsky’s political and social views. It is the claim of some right-wing kooks to exercise a veto power over academic appointments, a claim to which Drake has very foolishly acquiesced. In doing this, Drake has fundamentally betrayed his duties to the two communities he serves—the community of students and scholars which constitute the university, and the broader society with which they interact and which they serve.

The University of California at Irvine clearly has misdirected its search efforts. It has been looking for a law school dean. But what it really needs is a new chancellor.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Post
Inside the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.

The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Post
Europe’s Hamilton Moment·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

Number of Turkish college students detained in the last year for requesting Kurdish-language classes:

1,146

Turkey was funding a search for Suleiman the Magnificent’s heart.

A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today