IRVINE, Calif. — University of California, Irvine, Chancellor Michael V. Drake has created a storm of controversy by abruptly withdrawing an offer to make respected liberal legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky dean of the new law school.
Drake dropped Chemerinsky because he said he lost confidence in the educator, citing Chemerinsky's recent opinion articles that made him a "lightning rod."
The scheduled 2009 opening of the law school could be delayed now that the school has to begin a new search for a founding dean, officials said.
Drake has been accused of quashing academic freedom, criticism that intensified Sept. 13 when some faculty members called for his resignation.
Officials said the action could make it difficult to lure the scholars and staff needed to establish the school as one of the nation's best.
On Sept. 13, dozens of students, faculty and staff signed an open letter protesting the withdrawn offer.
"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," the letter read in part.
By the end of the day, Drake had attended a meeting where he faced hundreds of faculty members and tried to explain himself. He offered no detailed explanation on why he reversed his decision to hire Chemerinsky.
"My decision not to hire professor Chemerinsky had nothing to do with academic freedom or the infringement of academic freedom in any way," he said.
The speech did little to satisfy his critics. Jutta Heckhausen, secretary of the academic senate, said the faculty panel would have a closed-door meeting and might consider making a formal statement against the chancellor.
The Sept. 12 Los Angeles Times quoted John Eastman, a conservative constitutional scholar who is dean of Chapman University Law School in Orange, Calif., as calling UC Irvine's decision "a serious misstep." The Times said Eastman "frequently debates Chemerinsky."
Plans for the law school called for a dean to be in place this fall and as many as eight senior faculty members to be hired this academic year. The search for Chemerinsky took nine months; it will have to begin anew.
"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?"
Despite his public denials of caving to pressure, Loftus said that Drake told the committee during a Sept. 12 emergency meeting that he was forced to make the decision by outside forces whom he did not name.
"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."
Drake told Chemerinsky 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.'"
Several members of the Board of Regents said Sept. 13 they were baffled by Drake's decision. They believed Chemerinsky's appointment would not have been blocked by the 26-member board.
Gerald Parsky, former chairman of the Board of Regents, was contacted by Drake in late August who 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."