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Law dean is rehired as furor goes on

Times Staff Writers

UC Irvine’s chancellor tried to salvage the reputation of his fledgling law school Monday by announcing that he had reinstated Erwin Chemerinsky as its founding dean, but his own troubles persisted as faculty members continued to question why he had sacked the liberal scholar and contemplated taking action against their university’s leader.

The agreement with Chemerinsky, made five days after the deanship was rescinded, came after Chancellor Michael V. Drake and his wife flew to Durham, N.C., over the weekend so the two men could speak face to face.

The talks began Sunday morning over pastries at Chemerinsky’s home and continued late into the night.

“Many issues were addressed in depth,” the two said in a joint statement, “including several areas of miscommunication and misunderstanding. All issues were resolved to our mutual satisfaction.”

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Drake still faces crucial meetings this week when the UCI Academic Senate holds an emergency meeting to consider his actions and the UC Board of Regents meets in Davis, where some members will probably ask why Chemerinsky had been dropped.

“People at the regents level will be asking what really happened,” said Richard Blum, chair of the regents. “At the end of day, the whole thing was a little awkward.”

According to Chemerinsky, Drake had said he was pulling back the job offer because of pressure from conservatives over his outspoken liberal politics. The chancellor denied it.

In a conference call with reporters, the chancellor and new dean agreed that Chemerinsky would enjoy absolute academic freedom and would continue to write opinion articles on a wide range of issues, not just legal education as Drake suggested last week.

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“Chancellor Drake reaffirmed in the strongest possible way the academic freedom that I would have, as all deans and faculty members do,” Chemerinsky said. He later noted that he was aware that his role as dean also would require him to build a broad base of support. Before he was ousted, the dean had sought conservatives for some slots on his board of advisors.

Drake declined to discuss his decision to drop Chemerinsky, and he was vague on the reasons behind his turnaround. “Circumstances change; knowledge comes in,” Drake said.

Before the agreement, brokered with the help of a small group of influential Orange County attorneys, both men said their conflict left them feeling bruised. On Monday, however, both professed to have a strong relationship that would not hinder the law school.

Chemerinsky, a professor at Duke University, said he hoped Drake was not so politically damaged that he could not continue as chancellor. “I never would have accepted this position if I didn’t think I would have the chance to work with Michael Drake,” he said.

Some faculty at UCI were not so supportive.

Business Professor Richard McKenzie did not think the chancellor could keep his job. “I personally do not see how [Drake] can be effective going forward given the opposition across campus to what he did. I’ve never seen the faculty so unified.”

The cabinet of UCI’s Academic Senate met in closed session Monday to consider a response to the furor.

The panel has sway over the university’s curriculum and has played a critical role at pivotal moments in university controversies. In 1983, UCI was the prime candidate to house Richard Nixon’s presidential library, but the sponsoring foundation dropped the university as a prospect after the Academic Senate voted to place restrictions on it.

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The panel’s current vice chairwoman, Jutta Heckhausen, said: “I think that Chancellor Drake did an excellent job as chancellor for UCI until the Chemerinsky hire. . . . All the more perplexing it is to see him be so secretive and vague about the reasons for rescinding the offer.”

She declined to say what proposals were drafted in Monday’s closed-door meeting, but an emergency meeting open to all faculty members will be held Thursday to discuss “concerns about academic freedom and the chancellor’s leadership on campus,” according to Timothy Bradley, a biology professor who is the senate chairman.

Some faculty members said one proposal to be presented would be to investigate whether Drake caved in to pressure from political conservatives when he decided last week to drop Chemerinsky.

Others have pushed for a no-confidence vote.

This week, Drake is expected to be at UC Davis for the meeting of the regents, who must approve Chemerinsky’s $350,000 salary. The regents do not have veto power over Chemerinsky’s appointment, only his salary. They must approve any salary greater than $205,000.

Some regents are likely to ask Drake informally to explain the controversy.

Blum had been traveling in the Middle East when the crisis over Chemerinsky began. He said he looked into the matter on his return and found no indication that any of the regents were involved in the decisions to fire the law professor or to rehire him.

Blum said he had yet to talk to Drake.

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“As to what happened, your guess is as good as mine,” said Blum, a behind-the-scenes Democratic Party advisor and husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “I think he was left pretty much on his own to do whatever he wanted to do. The call was up to him to straighten it out or not straighten it out.”

The ousting of the law school dean quickly shot through academic and legal circles, fast becoming a national story about academic freedom.

“I do not believe that Chancellor Drake realized how this could become an issue of national importance,” said Joan Irvine Smith, a Chemerinsky supporter who has donated $1 million to the new Donald Bren School of Law through her foundation.

Drake originally offered Chemerinsky the job of dean Aug. 16, the same day his opinion article appeared in The Times, criticizing then-Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales’ death penalty policy. Chemerinsky signed his contract Sept. 4 and was fired a week later.

UC President Robert C. Dynes, who heads the 10-campus system, said Monday that he conferred with Drake as the controversy unfolded but that the decisions on Chemerinsky were Drake’s alone.

Dynes said he continues to have complete confidence in the chancellor.

“The decision regarding Professor Chemerinsky’s employment or that of any other administrator at UCI rests with Chancellor Drake, and it would have been inappropriate for me to intervene,” Dynes said. Dynes noted that under UC’s bylaws, hiring and firing deans rest with the chancellor.

Chemerinsky said last week that Drake had cited a likely “bloody battle” for his confirmation by the regents. That seemed unlikely, since it was listed on the consent calendar, where items usually are approved without debate.

In addition, The Times reported that Drake was “disturbed” when the state Supreme Court questioned the accuracy of Chemerinsky’s article about the death penalty. Chemerinsky stands by the article.

UC Provost Wyatt R. Hume, who is the system’s chief operating officer, said that he also was unaware of involvement by any regent. “That was an unfortunate perception and a misperception. We have seen no evidence of any kind of pressure,” he said.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

richard.paddock@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jennifer Delson and researcher John Tyrrell contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

UC Irvine controversy timeline

Aug. 16

UC Irvine offers nationally known constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky the deanship of its new law school, scheduled to open in 2009.

The same day, The Times runs an opinion piece by Chemerinsky criticizing a proposal by then-Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to make it more difficult for death row prisoners to have their cases reviewed in federal court.

Aug. 24

State Supreme Court justices ask the court clerk to send a letter to The Times criticizing Chemerinsky’s article as inaccurate. When he later learns of the letter, Chemerinsky stands by his article’s accuracy. A copy of the letter makes its way to Chancellor Michael V. Drake.

The newspaper has no record of the letter being received as a letter to the editor or as a request for a correction.

Sept. 4

Chemerinsky signs a contract to become dean of the Donald Bren School of Law.

Sept. 11

Drake tells Chemerinsky he is voiding the deal. Chemerinsky says Drake told him he was too liberal and that he had underestimated conservative animus toward him.

Wednesday

UCI acknowledges that Chemerinsky is out. Drake says outside pressure played no role in his decision and that he is rejecting Chemerinsky because his commentaries are “polarizing” and not in the best interests of California’s first new public law school in 40 years.

Thursday

Drake speaks to a hastily called faculty meeting, and some professors call for his resignation. An open letter on a staff and student website draws 181

signatures critical of Drake

in the first six hours after

posting.

Friday

Chemerinsky and Drake address the controversy in opinion pieces in The Times.

Monday

Chemerinsky and Drake announce an agreement once again to bring the Duke law professor to UCI. His $350,000 salary as dean must be approved by the UC Board of Regents.

Source: Times research by John Tyrrell


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