Who (almost) Dunnit?
Sept. 11, 2007: a day that could have lived in infamy.
That morning, Michael Drake, chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, flew to North Carolina to meet with Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Duke University's School of Law. Just three weeks earlier, Drake had hired Chemerinsky to become the founding dean of UC Irvine's law school, which is scheduled to open in 2009. Immediately, local conservatives had flooded Drake's office with telephone calls blasting Chemerinsky as an outspoken "liberal" who was too "partisan" for the job. Chemerinsky says he only got wind of the conservative effort to blackball him within minutes of picking up Drake at the airport. "In the first few sentences, he made clear he wasn't going to hire me," Chemerinsky told the Weekly in an interview last week. "He said I had proven to be too politically controversial. He said he knew I was liberal but he didn't realize the extent to which conservatives would be out to get me; he didn't expect the intense opposition. He never told me who the opposition was, and frankly I didn't ask. I certainly had the impression there was strong opposition, that it played a key role in the withdrawing of the offer."
In the next six days, Drake's decision to unhire Chemerinsky—and Chemerinsky's statements to the national media that Drake told him he'd underestimated the strength of Orange County Republicans who were "out to get me"—drew near-universal condemnation from liberal and conservative legal scholars. It also became a major source of embarrassment to UCI and almost—almost—the stuff of legend for Orange County conservatives who appeared to revel in their ability to blackball a noted lefty from taking the helm of a major law school in their back yard.
As everyone knows by now, on Sept. 17, Drake suddenly and inexplicably reversed his reversal and rehired the unhired Chemerinsky. Despite Chemerinsky's claim that Drake told him he was reacting to unspecified conservative opposition, Drake insisted nobody had pressured him, but that Chemerinsky's authorship of an anti-death-penalty editorial that ran in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 16—the same day Drake hired him—had changed his mind. On Sept. 20, in a speech to UCI's academic senate, which gathered to vote on whether to sanction him, Drake apologized for his bizarre behavior.
"I have learned a painful lesson this week," Drake said. "I made a series of difficult decisions without consulting senior faculty early enough or often enough. I am sorry for this; I apologize sincerely for the problems that followed."
In his speech, which drew a standing ovation from the faculty, Drake took personal responsibility for what happened, but he never addressed the biggest mystery of all: just who it was who pressured him not to hire Chemerinsky. "There were many opinions on all sides of the issue," Drake said. "In the end, the decision rested with me."
One person with a definite opinion on the matter is Michael Schroeder, a powerful Republican political consultant and adviser to both Sheriff Mike Carona and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. In an interview with the Weekly last week, Schroeder cryptically denied that he helped "organize" a conservative effort to pressure Drake to rescind his employment offer to Chemerinsky, but Schroeder confirmed that he did contact Drake's office to complain about the prospective dean.
"I didn't organize anything," Schroeder said. "I called over there and had one conversation with someone who was not Drake—a couple of minutes of conversation." Schroeder wouldn't say whom he spoke with, but he insisted he's never spoken to Drake personally. "I think bringing Chemerinsky here is, and was, a mistake," he added.
Although it was clear that the overwhelming majority of UCI's faculty like Drake and appreciated his apology, a few faculty members noted the obvious: Drake wasn't being honest or forthcoming about his reasons for unhiring Chemerinsky.
"Something really happened," observed physics professor Doug Mills. "Something really did . . . We have to recognize that something really happened." Mills suggested the senate vote to investigate who, if anyone, pressured Drake.
"Something really happened," echoed the next speaker, Kenneth Pomeranz, a history professor. "The problem is we don't know what it was. Many of us believe that wasn't the full story. We can't get that without a formal inquiry."
After Drake's mollifying, if mystifying, speech, UCI's academic senate voted overwhelmingly to table a resolution that would have amounted to only the mildest of rebukes. That cheerful outcome was likely aided by a letter Chemerinsky sent to the senate urging them not to render a vote of no confidence in Drake's leadership.
Chemerinsky says the support he's received from all sides of the political spectrum is heartening not just for him, but for the UCI law school's prospects, as well. It also proves that Orange County is no longer a conservative backwater where local politicos can blackball someone by calling him a liberal.
"This has been one of the hardest and certainly the strangest weeks of my life," Chemerinsky said. "But this was also a wonderful opportunity for the left and right to come together and support the principles of academic freedom."
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