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Furor disrupts plans for UCI school of law

Times Staff Writers

For decades, UC Irvine has aspired to open Orange County’s first top-flight law school, declaring it to be the university’s glaring “missing piece.”

The effort was thrown into turmoil after UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake abruptly dropped respected liberal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky as the school’s first dean. Drake said he had lost confidence in the educator, in part, because of Chemerinsky’s recent opinion articles that made him a “lightning rod,” including a scathing rebuke of U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.

The action ignited a debate about academic freedom and political meddling that only grew more fierce Thursday, with some faculty members calling for Drake’s resignation after a hastily scheduled meeting of the university’s academic senate on Thursday afternoon.

Officials said the turnaround on Chemerinsky could delay the opening of the law school -- scheduled for 2009 -- and so tarnish the institution that it would be difficult to assemble the scholars and staff needed to establish the school as one of the nation’s best -- UCI’s long-cherished goal.

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On Thursday, an open letter gathered 181 signatures in the first six hours it was posted on a website for students, faculty and staff. In part it said: “We are disturbed because of the deep violation both of the integrity of the university and of the intrusion of outrageously one-sided politics and unacceptable ideological considerations.”

Social sciences professor Frank D. Bean said: “If it’s a matter of outside pressure, the chancellor should have stood up to that. If it’s a matter of concerns over Chemerinsky, why wasn’t due diligence done? There are no scenarios that one can construct that are acceptable. Rarely are things so clear cut.”

By the end of the day, Drake faced hundreds of faculty members at the senate meeting, and he struggled to squelch criticism.

The chancellor, speaking tentatively and choosing his words carefully, offered no additional detail on what led him to reverse his decision on Chemerinsky. He told the crowd, however, “My decision not to hire professor Chemerinsky had nothing to do with academic freedom or the infringement of academic freedom in any way.”

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Mark Warschauer, a professor of education, left the meeting saying he didn’t think Drake’s appearance would put the issue to rest. “I don’t think this satisfies,” he said.

Jutta Heckhausen, secretary of the academic senate, said the faculty panel would probably meet behind closed doors next week and might consider making a formal statement against the chancellor.

In the meantime, officials leading the launch of the law school said the decision makes it likely the school will not be ready to accept its first class as scheduled in 2009.

In order to meet the target, plans called for a dean to be in place this fall and for six to eight senior faculty members to then be hired this academic year. The search for Chemerinsky took nine months before a formal agreement was reached, and search committee members said they would now probably start again from scratch.

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“We had three other finalists, and one of them would have definitely done it a week ago,” said psychology professor Elizabeth F. Loftus, a member of the committee. “If you asked them today, I don’t know. I don’t think the law school will be derailed, but who knows what’s going to happen next?”

Although Drake has denied that he took action under pressure from conservatives, Loftus said Thursday that the chancellor told the committee during an emergency meeting Wednesday night that he was forced to make the decision by outside forces whom he did not name. A second member of the committee confirmed Loftus’ account to The Times but asked to remain anonymous.

“I asked whether it was one or two voices or an avalanche, and the answer is that it was an avalanche,” Loftus said. “But we are not supposed to capitulate to that in the world of academic freedom.”

Chemerinsky said that in their final conversation Tuesday morning, Drake told him significant opposition to his hiring had developed but did not specify who the critics were.

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“We just agreed that in the public statement, we’d say that I had proven too politically controversial,” said Chemerinsky, now of Duke University and formerly of USC.

Drake told him that the appointment would prompt “a bloody fight” within the UC Board of Regents and that “if we won, it would damage the law school,” Chemerinsky said. ". . . He said, ‘I knew you were liberal, but I didn’t realize how controversial you’d be.’ He said, ‘I didn’t realize there would be conservatives out to get you.’ ”

Chemerinsky said that when he was interviewed by Drake in June, the two men discussed how an administrator or dean needs to be careful about public statements and the potential effect of those statements on the institution he or she leads. But Chemerinsky said Drake never told him he couldn’t write opinion pieces.

Several members of the Board of Regents said Thursday they were puzzled by Drake’s decision, adding that they believe Chemerinsky’s appointment would not have been blocked by the 26-member body.

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Gerald Parsky, former chairman of the Board of Regents, and Richard Blum, the current chairman, were contacted by Drake in late August before the UCI chancellor had reached a final decision about the hiring.

Blum was in the Middle East on Thursday and unavailable for comment, but Parsky said Drake briefed him about the search process in that phone call and told him he was leaning toward Chemerinsky. Drake “did not ask my opinion on Chemerinsky and I did not provide it,” Parsky said.

“The regents support academic freedom and the right of the chancellor to decide on the hiring of a dean based on the academic needs and goals of his individual campus, and the regents do not interfere with these matters,” Parsky said. “And I do not believe we did in this case at all.”

Chemerinsky’s appointment did not initially appear to be controversial.

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Under UC procedures, the authority to select a dean falls to the chancellor, and the candidate is not subject to approval by the regents, a university spokesman said. The regents are required to approve any salaries above $205,000. The board was scheduled to consider Chemerinsky’s salary at an upcoming meeting because the sum would have been above that threshold.

Regent John Moores said the chance that any regent knew about Chemerinsky’s hiring as dean and sought to intervene was “as close to zero as anything can get.”

Moores noted that people might speculate on what the Board of Regents would do in a certain situation. But he said that doesn’t mean that any of the regents have actually weighed in. “It’s awfully easy to hide behind the notion that the regents might not approve this,” he said.

Regents Moores, Sherry L. Lansing and Judy Hopkinson, and Michael Brown, chairman of the UC system’s Academic Senate and a non-voting member of the Board of Regents, all said they knew of no opposition that would arise when the salary came up for approval at their meeting next week.

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State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a regent, condemned Drake’s decision.

Joan Irvine Smith, the heiress to the James Irvine land fortune who donated $1 million to the law school through her foundation, said she was surprised by the news that Chemerinsky’s appointment had been withdrawn.

She said she had dinner with Drake and his wife, Brenda, Saturday night at a fundraiser and that he never mentioned it, even though they discussed a number of other issues about the school.

“This appears to be something that was extremely recent,” she said. “This sounded like a very fine gentleman. I think it’s a shame.”

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In an interview, Drake said the law school’s namesake and $20-million donor, Donald Bren, had no role in the decision. “He stayed away from the decision entirely,” the chancellor said.

One well-known political scientist at UC Irvine said the controversy might stir up Orange County’s old image as a bastion of right-wing conservatism.

“It’s possible for people external to the county to say, ‘Aha. The days of the cavemen are back,” said UCI political science professor Mark Petracca. “It has given people the opportunity to bash Orange County for a reputation that is contemporarily undeserved. It gives people a chance to say, ‘There they go again. This could only happen in that part of the country -- Orange County.’ ”

The aborted effort to hire Chemerinsky is only the latest run of bad publicity to throw a shadow over the university. Seemingly at many points in its quest for prominence there has been a dramatic setback -- a scandal in its medical school’s liver transplant program, the illegal sale of cadaver parts by its Willed Body Program and the prosecution of fertility doctors who stole eggs and embryos and implanted them in other women.

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Drake was hired as chancellor in 2005, years after the cadaver and fertility scandals and just months before news of the liver program issues broke. He was brought in to help the university move forward.

The open letter, which called on Chemerinsky to be rehired, said, “We are deeply concerned, because this action places UC Irvine once more in the spotlight for the most negative and debilitating of reasons.”

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

richard.paddock@latimes.com

Times staff writers Christian Berthelsen, Tony Barboza and Joe Mozingo contributed to this report.


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