The Situationist

The Situation of the Erwin Chemerinsky Deanship

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 22, 2007

Erwin Chemerinsky and Michael Drake

Situationist contributor Jerry Kang has a thoughtful analysis in this week’s National Law Journal on the awkward hiring, firing, and re-hiring of Professor Erwin Chemerinsky to be the dean of the University of California at Irvine law school. Kang examines the political and social dynamics that moved the decision-making process, including the role played by Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake. We excerpt a portion of his piece below.

* * *

Inside of a week, we quickly learned that Chemerinsky had accepted the offer, then was fired due to political pressures, then was rehired in the face of a furious backlash against Chancellor Michael Drake.

Now that Chemerinsky has been rehired and the relevant parties are playing nice, the post-mortem will probably go on only a little longer, to try to see who applied what kind of political pressure. As this story’s newsworthiness dissipates, many people will forget the details and take away some rough lesson about political power: Exercise of naked political power by conservatives fired Chemerinsky, then exercise of naked political power by liberals (and some others) hired him back. But this somewhat cynical interpretation misses something significant.

When news of the firing initially surfaced, very smart people defended Irvine’s decision even if it was politically influenced. They emphasized that, first, a deanship is an administrative position not an academic one; thus, complaints about academic freedom are exaggerated. Second, if politics can be used in the initial hiring decision, what’s so wrong with considering politics a few weeks later?

These are excellent points. And I do not mean to make any detailed legal argument about academic freedom. But only formalism would suggest that a law school deanship is not also an academic position: The dean is also a tenured professor of law. More substantively, many legal academics view associate deanships and deanships as the natural path of promotion. When Chemerinsky was fired, faculty across the nation were sent a clear signal that straying from the narrow mainstream can endanger upward mobility. This is why in the rehiring, it was crucial and completely expected that both Chemerinsky and Drake would underscore the value of academic freedom.

* * *

What happened to Chemerinsky is galling not because money and politics apparently influenced a hiring decision. We are not so naïve to think that this is a rare occurrence. But this was not merely an acquisition question — a failure to hire Chemerinsky in the first instance. Rather, he had already signed the contract and fielded a board of advisors. This was removal. To be sure, firing a sitting dean for being politically incorrect is worse. But what happened was almost as bad.

* * *

For the rest of the column, click here. For a useful recap of the Chermerinsky matter and excerpts from various commentators on the matter, see this post from Law and Letters. Also check out the following thoughtful pieces by Ole Miss law professor Paul Secunda on Workplace Prof Blog, Marquette law professor Scott Moss on FindLaw, and Suffolk law professor Jeffrey Lipshaw on the Legal Profession Network,

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