Politicized UC Regents?

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Just when the University of California Board of Regents finally saw one of its most scandal-dogged figures, UC President Robert Dynes, ride off into the sunset, another UC bigwig has put the board in the hot seat again. Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor from Duke University, had seemed like a shoo-in to become head honcho of UC Irvine’s new law school. But this week, out of the blue, the university revoked its offer.

Chemerinksy says (and UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake seems to imply) that university officials were concerned that the liberal law professor’s politics would not survive scrutiny from the Regents. But that argument doesn’t survive close inspection.

The Regents, who are appointed by the California governor to 12-year terms (subject to approval from the Legislature), really don’t have much history of dumping high-profile political personages, or commenting on academics with noisy politics, liberal or otherwise. UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was an outspoken critic of the affirmative action-banning Proposition 209, and didn’t get so much as a slap on the hand. A few years ago, the regents appointed the openly lesbian Denice Dee Denton to the chancellor’s seat at UC Santa Cruz, and found teaching job for her partner as well. When it comes to UC appointments, qualifications, not politics, are key.


The one notable exception to this rule was UC President Clark Kerr, and his handling of the Free Speech Movement. The former UC Berkeley chancellor, who had clashed with Gov. Ronald Reagan, was summarily fired by the Board of Regents in 1967. But that was a different time and place, paranoia still reigned, the FBI was plotting actively to depose the chancellor, and Reagan made dumping Kerr part of his 1966 campaign. California, fortunately, has changed a lot since then, and academic freedom is prioritized far higher than political leanings.

The case of Clark Kerr, however, does raise an interesting point: While the Regents’ personnel decisions aren’t necessarily political, the appointment of the Regents is notoriously partisan. Reagan relied on his appointees to axe Kerr. Gov. Pete Wilson, who opposed a proposal to provide health benefits to the partners of gay UC employees, frantically rushed three appointees to the board -- two on the same day as the vote -- in an attempt to block the move (it passed anyway, 13-12, as one of his other morally anguished appointees abstained). Gov. Gray Davis, in an attempt to court the Latino vote, made a last-minute decision to plant United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. In a board populated by rich, connected white men, even the black sheep are there for political reasons.

Politically motivated though their appointments are, the Regents generally practice their politics over policy decisions, not personnel moves. So Drake’s implication that it was Chemerinsky’s liberal leanings that led him to rescind the offer doesn’t ring especially plausible. And even if he were afraid the Regents might not approve Chemerinksy, what’s the harm in letting the process play out?

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this revelation will spark a nice juicy investigation into underhanded board politics, titillating enough to rival the pay-perk scandal of 2005-2006. But it’s far more likely a case of a jittery chancellor doing his best to avoid any more controversy, rather than a Board of Regents gone suddenly political.

Amina Khan is an intern for the Editorial Pages. Send us your thoughts at