Flap over dean's hiring doesn't keep
UC Irvine law school from lining up prominent faculty
The controversy over Erwin Chemerinsky has not hindered the institution, as
some predicted. The 'dream team' faculty has been praised by legal experts and
By Tony Barboza
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 19, 2008
After liberal constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky was hired, fired and then
rehired as dean of the fledgling UC Irvine School of Law last year, some said
the politically charged controversy meant Orange County had missed its shot at a
nationally renowned law school.
At the time, university officials acknowledged that the hiring debacle, which
erupted into a battle over academic freedom, could put such a blemish on the
institution that it would be difficult to assemble a top-tier team of legal
But this month, Chemerinsky officially started as dean and proved many of those
dire predictions wrong, announcing an 18-member "dream team" of
founding faculty and administrators that observers in legal and higher education
circles praised as an impressive lineup. The first class of 60 students is
scheduled to start in fall 2009.
Chemerinsky, who left his post at Duke University to head the UC Irvine law
school, is considered one of the nation's foremost experts on constitutional
law, though his left-leaning positions have drawn fire from conservatives.
The list of founding faculty was seen as an important milestone after UCI
Chancellor Michael V. Drake's decision in September to abruptly fire Chemerinsky
as founding dean, only to offer him the job again five days later after a
Chemerinsky contended that Drake bowed to pressure from conservatives and sacked
him because of his outspoken liberal positions. Drake later admitted he
"bungled" the appointment but denied outside influence.
The assortment of professors brought on staff has dispelled concerns that
Chemerinsky's hiring fracas would undermine the school's ability to recruit top
faculty, and to do so quickly, said Robert Pushaw, a politically conservative
constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University.
"It's very difficult to persuade top law professors to leave their schools
to join an upstart operation, but he's hired some very high-profile
people," Pushaw said. "I'm guessing there won't be a whole lot of
McCain bumper stickers in the parking lot there, but that's true of academia in
The incoming professors include specialists in intellectual property, labor,
clinical education, civil rights and dispute resolution.
Among the well-known names are civil rights and education expert Rachel Moran
from UC Berkeley, who is the incoming president of the Assn. of American Law
Schools; Dan Burk, a cyber law and biotechnology expert from the University of
Minnesota; Chemerinsky's wife, Catherine Fisk, a noted Duke University labor law
professor; and former Times reporter Henry Weinstein.
The university also named four administrators and four current UCI professors
who will teach interdisciplinary courses.
"These choices are indicative of Erwin's pledge to make this not the
typical law school," said John Eastman, dean of Chapman University's law
Eastman, whose school is known for its conservative bent, said the lineup was
"a bit eclectic" and overall appeared to be slightly left of center,
with several well-known liberals but no staunch conservatives.
The qualifications of the hires, he said, were "par for the course in
higher legal education."
Chemerinsky, who taught at USC's law school for 21 years before moving to Duke
in 2004, has deliberately courted prominent right-wing thinkers for hire at UCI
-- so far unsuccessfully -- said Elizabeth Loftus, a UCI psychology professor
who will teach courses at the law school and has been involved in recruiting.
"He is not afraid to be in a place where there's people who disagree,"
she said. "He was working for Valerie Plame and I'm Scooter Libby's expert
witness, and we're getting along."
Chemerinsky said he went after a faculty with diverse political views but, more
importantly, sought professors who were in the top of their field.
"It's always been my goal that our law school will have no ideology. I
don't want to make a liberal law school or a conservative law school," he
said. "To the extent that conservatives had doubts about me, all I want is
for them to give me a chance."
The hires prompted tempered reactions from conservatives, who said the new staff
did not appear to skew too heavily to the left.
Individual professors are bound to be less controversial than Chemerinsky, said
Scott Baugh, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, who took issue with
the way the appointment was handled because Chemerinsky was "not vetted out
properly" and because he was a "polarizing figure."
"Very few people expect higher educational systems to be dominated by
conservative lecturers, so there are no surprises here," Baugh said.
In the weeks before Drake rescinded the offer to Chemerinsky, prominent
conservatives, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich and
former state Republican Party Chairman Michael Schroeder, one of Orange County's
most powerful GOP political players, sought to derail his appointment through
e-mails and phone calls to the university.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George also criticized
Chemerinsky's grasp of death penalty appeals.
Judges and lawyers were among those who contacted UCI, questioning Chemerinsky's
fundraising abilities and whether he was a good fit for traditionally right-wing
But when Chemerinsky's ouster became public, most students, alumni, faculty and
community members expressed outrage over Drake's decision to fire the dean,
calling it a violation of academic freedom.
Liberals said concerns about Chemerinsky being too divisive of a figure to amass
a balanced, distinguished slate of professors have proved to be unfounded.
Pamela Karlan, a politically liberal law professor at Stanford University who
serves on an advisory board to UCI law school, said the hires are best
characterized by their interest in using law for public service.
"The people he has brought in are a fair cross section of top-tier legal
academics, which means, of course, that they will tend to be moderate
liberals," she said. "But they're not radicals."
Tom Malcolm, a prominent Orange County attorney who helped orchestrate the deal
to rehire Chemerinsky, said the county's legal community has pushed aside the
dispute in order to focus on the decades-long aspiration to open an esteemed law
school, a goal of the Irvine campus since 1989.
"All of us are united to see that happen regardless of politics,"
Malcolm said. Chemerinsky has "certainly vindicated all of the faith and
confidence we've placed in him."
Despite its rocky start, the school has several advantages: a high-profile dean;
a $20-million donation from Newport Beach developer Donald Bren; and its
association with the University of California, already home to two of the
nation's top 20 law schools -- Berkeley and UCLA.
The goal of officials is to see UC Irvine rise to the top 20 as soon as
possible, and Chemerinsky said he will commit the next 10 years of his career to
A frequent commentator on constitutional law, Chemerinsky has argued in support
of judicial review for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; sat on a Los
Angeles Police Commission panel that reviewed the department's response to the
Rampart division corruption scandal; and most recently, in a Times op-ed piece
criticized the Supreme Court's invalidation of the Washington, D.C., handgun ban
as conservative judicial activism.
He will not abandon that role, he said.
"I believe that all faculty have the obligation to be opinion leaders on
the matter of law, and we have the duty to educate not just law students,
lawyers and judges, but the public as well."