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'Fess up, Chancellor Drake
So, all's well that ends well, right? Not so fast.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article inferred that "695" of UC Irvine's "employees" signed a petition of protest to Chancellor Michael Drake. Not all of the the signatories are UC Irvine employees.
UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake who hired well-known law professor and commentator Erwin Chemerinsky to be the founding dean of his new law school on Aug. 16, unhired him on Sept. 11 for opaque reasons connected to Chemerinsky's political speech, then announced his rehiring Sept. 17 wants to "put recent events behind us." I'll bet. It's not every week that hundreds of your employees accuse you of attacking "the integrity, reputation, and morale of faculty, staff and students alike," or that respected law professors from across the political spectrum call you "disgraceful" and worse.
But even though Chemerinsky has now been hired back, the story is far from over as far as public interest is concerned, for at least two reasons:
1) We still don't know why Drake fired his new law dean in the first place. This would be a mere personnel mystery, if it weren't for the fact that...
2) Drake, while never giving a sensible reason for the dismissal, did tell people that it had to do with the content of Chemerinsky's political speech (specifically an Aug. 16 Op-Ed in the L.A. Times), and to the "pressure" and "opposition" he was receiving from unnamed Republicans. If an Op-Ed can truly get an academic even an administrator fired, then that's a data point about the erosion of our free-speech climate that we deserve to know about.
And if indeed there are Republicans powerful enough to scotch the hiring of a well-known liberal dean, we need to know who they are, and how exactly they wield their power, so that we can prepare ourselves for next time, or take measures to reduce improper influence.
And perhaps most relevantly, if a chancellor is just using the chimera of powerful Republicans to justify his own sloppy handling of a personnel decision, we need to know that too, because we're paying his salary.
Instead of any of that, here's what Drake said Monday in a conference call with reporters, after being asked what concrete disagreements had been ironed out during his Sunday reconciliation with Chemerinsky. I'll quote the answer in full, to give maximum flavor to Drake's evasive language:
Yes, here's what I'll say about that and I ask you to respect this. One of the things that Erwin and I since we will have to work closely together one of the things that we specified before we discussed all of these things yesterday, is that anything we would like to discuss would be on the table, but that all of it would remain between us, as a confidential communication. So much that happened this last week has been parts of conversations taken out of context and blown into things that have been quite energy-intensive and destructive. Let me say that we had and I'll let Erwin respond after I finish talking but we had an in-depth conversation about our working relationship going forward in creating this new law school. And that it was a conversation that was highlighted by all of the areas of disagreement Freudian slip all the areas ofagreement and excitement that we had together. And there are a few areas that needed to be adjusted or tuned but, as I said, our agreements were overwhelming, and we were able to resolve any areas of miscommunication. We decided that the content of that discussion that was going to be between us and made it so we could have a very good discussion among us, the two of us who have to work together on this, so I will not talk of anything specific that we spoke of yesterday. Note the flagrant and ongoing refusal to take responsibility for a mess of Drake's own creation: parts of conversations taken out of context and blown into things that have been quite energy-intensive and destructive.
Destructive to Drake's and UC Irvine's reputation, sure and deservedly so. But destructive to the rest of us too. It doesn't take much in campus politics to unleash mutual recriminations, and there's a population of politicized observers who want nothing more than to believe the absolute worst from their rhetorical adversaries. People who believe Orange County to be the home of knuckle-dragging neanderthals had their biases reinforced this week, as did conservatives embittered by double-standards of "academic freedom."
Much of that could be waved away with a single honest explanation from Chancellor Drake. The fact that he won't give one says something much worse about UC Irvine than a mere five days' worth of bad headlines.
Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor; click here to read more of his Opinion Daily columns. Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.