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Excuse for UCI’s fumble isn’t good enough

It’s dicey business when mere mortals try to figure out why smart people in high places do dumb things. Or when they do things that just don’t add up.

Dicey, because we have the sneaking suspicion that there’s always more to the story than we know. And because people in those high places are uncommonly skilled in covering their tracks and keeping us from knowing.

So, I’m not going to pretend to have penetrated in the last 24 hours the mystery of why UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake tore up the contract Tuesday that he offered Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky a month ago to become the first dean of UCI’s law school.

But make no mistake: There is a mystery to be solved. And the answer goes far, far beyond Drake’s statement Wednesday that he has “come to the very difficult conclusion that Professor Chemerinsky is not the right fit for the dean’s position at UC Irvine at this time.”

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Who got to Drake, who’s been chancellor since mid-2005, and told him that Chemerinsky, a well-known constitutional scholar and acknowledged liberal commentator, isn’t the guy for UCI?

Give us the name or names.

Drake insists that nobody leaned on him, that he just had second thoughts.

Not buying it.

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And even if I did, how is it that the well-publicized search for the school’s founding dean got to the point where Chemerinsky signed the contract, only to have it dramatically taken away? Pretty ham-handed either way.

Although there’s plenty we don’t know so far, one thing is clear: UCI comes across like a backwater community college holding its first raffle.

Chemerinsky would have brought the star power that any new law school would covet. His liberal credentials were hardly a secret. As recently as Aug. 16, The Times published his essay critical of U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales’ support of a regulation making it harder for death row inmates to have their cases reviewed in federal court.

Orange County is obviously conservative political territory. And UCI, like most universities, longs for a sustainable base of financial donors to keep it moving forward. Did a deep-pocketed cadre of conservative donors put the heat on Drake to rescind the offer?

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Or did the impetus for the Dump Chemerinsky movement originate with the UC system’s Board of Regents, which would have to approve the contract?

And, if either speculation is correct -- and Drake didn’t simply change his mind, as he says -- why didn’t Drake stand his ground and fight for Chemerinsky?

You may think I’m avoiding the obvious, but I’m not: Yes, I know conservative Orange County businessman Donald Bren has pledged $20 million to the new law school and will have his name on it.

Is Bren the heavy? Did he learn of Chemerinsky’s hire and throw a billion-dollar fit?

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Could be, but it’s almost inconceivable to me that UCI would offer Chemerinsky -- or anyone -- the job without, if only as a courtesy, telling the man the school is named after. That just doesn’t make sense, and unless I’m hopelessly naive about such things, that means Bren would have had time to indicate his displeasure -- if, in fact, he would have had any -- before Chemerinsky had a contract to sign.

So, I’m eliminating Bren as a suspect but still asking him not to leave town, just in case.

I usually work alone on solving cases, but I put in a call Wednesday to Scott Baugh, the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party and a lawyer who got his degree at the University of the Pacific.

He seems to have the perfect combination of credentials to weigh in.

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So, what does he think? “It seems that somebody made an enormous miscalculation,” Baugh says, “that unfortunately has brought embarrassment and awkwardness to a new school.”

I didn’t ask him to spell out D-R-A-K-E, but I didn’t have to.

Baugh says a law school dean should be a person of great stature.

With that, Baugh says, “comes the ability to raise money, bring in guest lecturers, attract a stimulating faculty and enhance the quality of the experience at a law school. You don’t want sterile teachers or professors. You want the law school experience to be dynamic.”

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Baugh likely would share few of Chemerinsky’s political views, but says he doesn’t think a law school dean in conservative Orange County must necessarily be politically conservative. However, Baugh says, someone as prominent as a law school dean inevitably comes to be associated, through their public comments, with the local community.

In that sense, Baugh says, “my generic observation is that a dean that is going to come to a community like Orange County should be less polarizing than someone like Chemerinsky.” For that reason, Baugh says, Chemerinsky probably wasn’t a good choice in the first place.

People of all political stripes can debate that. For example, John Eastman, the conservative scholar and dean of the Chapman University Law School, said UCI made a “serious misstep” in rescinding the Chemerinsky offer.

Someday, this may all become clear.

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For now, all we know is that the big loser in this isn’t Erwin Chemerinsky.

For reasons that cry for explanation, the tag goes to Michael Drake and, incredibly, the reputation of a school that doesn’t even open for two years.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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