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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.

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