UC Irvine brought Erwin Chemerinsky to Orange County in June 2008, so it’s not strange that his favorite thing about the county is The University that now employs him. Even so, the dean of UCI’s brand-new law school says the university has impressed him by being so gosh-darn good across the board.
“It’s committed to being a superb university,” he says. “In terms of the quality of the faculty and the students and the programs, I have been so impressed by everything that I’ve seen and learned here. It’s an intellectual center for Orange County.”
If it sounds like Chemerinsky is buttering up his new employer—well, maybe he is. After all, he and UCI got off to a strange start in 2007 when chancellor Michael Drake offered, revoked, and then re-offered Chemerinsky the job of founding dean of the law school. The flap, dubbed “Chemerinskygate,” brought the constitutional scholar into national headlines, but that’s nothing new: For years, Chemerinsky has been one of the most visible left-leaning constitutional scholars in the country.
He has represented Guantánamo prisoners, been considered for federal judge positions and served as a TV pundit during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. His high profile and political outspokenness were part of what made Drake initially double back on his job offer. Now, though, Chemerinsky says he has a close relationship with his boss, with whom he co-taught a freshman seminar about civil rights earlier this year.
In August, a week before orientation for UCI Law’s first student class, Chemerinsky enthused to the Weekly about his job.
“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “We have the tremendous benefit of a blank slate.”
Chemerinsky envisions the school, which emphasizes public-service lawyering, ranking in the top 20 law schools in the country. On that front, he says, so far so good: In terms of acceptance rate, UCI Law was more selective than Yale in admitting its inaugural class of 68 students. It couldn’t have hurt the numbers that a gift from local bazillionaire Donald Bren meant that no one in that class would have to pay tuition.
Between media appearances, curriculum formulation and time spent wooing prospective professors and donors, Chemerinsky’s schedule has been full. “I love what I do, and there’s lots to do,” he says. He has even made time to serve on the board of directors for Voice of OC, the soon-to-be-launched journalism nonprofit overseen by former state Senator Joe Dunn.
But Chemerinsky and his wife, Catherine Fisk, a UCI Law professor, get a few hours to themselves every Sunday morning, after they drop their kids off at Hebrew school, when they pick up a pastry from Pacific Whey Café and stroll down Crystal Cove beach.
Though Chemerinsky grew up in Chicago and taught at USC for 21 years before moving to teach at Duke in 2004, he says Irvine seems like exactly where he belongs. “Orange County is such a comfortable and easy place to live,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much it would feel like I’m home.”