Scholars Decry Law School's About-Face on New Dean

By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 13 -- Scholars across the political spectrum protested what they called an assault on academic freedom after the University of California at Irvine withdrew a job offer from a liberal professor who wrote an op-ed criticizing the Bush administration.

Faculty members were furious, and blogs and editorial pages hummed Thursday with news that constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, 54, would not become dean of the University of California's first new law school in 40 years.

A highly visible liberal law professor at Duke University, Chemerinsky has represented Valerie Plame and a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. He is a frequent guest on talk shows to represent a liberal point of view and has written op-eds for major newspapers, including The Washington Post, on school segregation, abortion and workers' rights. He also played a major role in investigating the Los Angeles Police Department Rampart scandal and in writing the Los Angeles City Charter.

On Aug. 16, Chemerinsky was offered the job as dean of the University of California at Irvine law school, scheduled to open in 2009. The same day he got the job offer, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed by Chemerinsky urging California to reject a plan by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that would, he argued, make it harder for those on death row to have their cases reviewed in federal court.

According to Chemerinsky, the UC-Irvine chancellor told him on Tuesday that he "knew I was liberal but didn't know how controversial I would be." The chancellor also said "some conservative opposition was developing," and the University of California regents would have "a bloody fight" over approving him, Chemerinsky said.

In a telephone interview, UC-Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake said Chemerinsky's politics did not play a role in his decision to rescind the job offer. Rather, he said, Chemerinsky's accessibility to the media made him uneasy "because my feeling was, if we had a problem -- as the last couple of days show -- that it would be huge."

Calls to several University of California regents were not returned, but Ward Connerly, architect of the state's anti-affirmative-action law and a UC regent for 12 years, said he does not believe concerns from regents could have derailed Chemerinsky's hiring. The regents "give great deference to the decisions of the chancellors and the president, whether they believe in them or not," he said.

Conservative and liberal lawyers called the ousting of Chemerinsky a major misstep for the new law school.

"Even though I agree with him on only about one out of 100 issues, I believe he is one of the top legal minds in the United States," said Hugh Hewitt, a law professor at Chapman University and host of a daily radio talk show. "This is clearly a boneheaded move, and how do you resurrect a situation like this?"

Douglas W. Kmiec, a conservative Constitutional scholar and law professor at Pepperdine University who has often debated Chemerinsky called him "a gentle soul, a splendid scholar and a person with a fine legal mind. . . . And I say this as someone who generally disagrees with where his mind is coming from." Kmiec wrote in a Los Angeles Times editorial on Thursday that the withdrawal of the job offer "is a betrayal of everything a great institution like the University of California represents."

On the other end of the political spectrum, Charles H. Whitebread, Chemerinsky's friend and former colleague at the University of Southern California Law School, said of the UC-Irvine administration: "I think they have shot themselves in the foot. They are going to have a very difficult time trying to create a first-rate law school now."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company