Administrative Blunders Spell Rocky Future for UCI Law School

    UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA — When UC Irvine announced the formation of its new law school, the public confidently supported school officials, believing the endeavor would earn the university additional prestige.

    No one, however, expected the mockery that the law school would become.

    It started only a few months ago, when UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake announced his decision to appoint the respected Duke Law School professor Erwin Chemerinsky as dean of the school’s newest undertaking.

    Students and faculty were overjoyed; here was a man who had argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, who even represented CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson — and he would be heading their law school. They couldn’t have been luckier.

    It was no surprise, then, that news of Drake’s reckless decision sparked a public outcry. Faculty and staff quickly united not only in support of Chemerinsky, but also to question Drake’s ability to effectively lead their school.

    By pulling the plug on Chemerinsky’s UC career, Drake had stonewalled the progress needed to meet the law school’s goal of opening in 2009 and turned the school into the laughingstock of the UC system. According to faculty, these antics have threatened the future of the law school.

    “I personally do not see how [Drake] can be effective going forward given the opposition across campus to what he did,” UC Irvine business professor Richard McKenzie told the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 18. “I’ve never seen the faculty so unified.”

    In the face of mounting opposition, and with the fear of losing his job if he neglected to act, Drake hastily began efforts to re-court the esteemed professor. Less than a week after being denied his position, Chemerinsky agreed to climb back on board. In terms of repairing the public damage, however, Drake was too little too late.

    Administrative confidence had evaporated and word was rapidly spreading that Drake’s efforts were not based on concern over Chemerinksky’s skills but rather an attempt to appease conservatives who disliked the professor’s liberal political stance. The situation left old supporters questioning the stability of his leadership and his commitment to free speech. Even his apologies at UC Irvine’s Sept. 20 Academic Senate meeting could not compensate for the baffling incident; the damage was irreparable.

    If anything is to be gained from the embarrassing episode, however, it should be treated as a learning tool for the university — how not to start a law school. When UC Irvine officials meet again on Dec. 15 to readdress the matter of Drake’s future as chancellor and the events surrounding the hiring, firing and rehiring of Chemerinsky, they should honestly ask themselves if Drake is the man for the job.

    His priority to satisfy conservatives, despite a liberal university environment, hints at a dismissal of school interests. His disregard for the importance of free speech at the institution indicates that his priorities are not suited for UC Irvine’s liberal setting. His disrespect for Chemerinsky foreshadows possible conflicts between the chancellor and dean and Drake’s ignorance of campus opinions signals similar discrepancies between the staff and administration.

    Even if the whole debacle was a careless and honest mistake, the consequences are too profound — and Drake’s ability to lead in too much jeopardy — to permit a smooth grand opening in two years.

    Unless the school wants students pointing and laughing instead of clamoring for a spot on its 2009 acceptance list, university officials would be wise to act now by urging Drake to resign as UC Irvine’s chancellor.

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