Political Controversy

November 30, 2007

In early September, Erwin Chemerinsky, Alston & Bird Professor of law and a renowned constitutional scholar, believed he'd be heading to the University of California at Irvine as founding dean of its new law school, scheduled to open in 2009.

But less than a week after Chemerinsky signed the contract, which was contingent on the approval of the University of California's board of regents, UCI Chancellor Michael Drake rescinded the offer. He said Chemerinsky, who has a reputation for being liberal and frequently writes opinion pieces on issues like gay rights and problems with the criminal justice system, was "too politically controversial."

The news of the rescinded job offer spread fast. Drake was widely criticized for a move that many saw as violating the principle of academic freedom.

Criticism came from across the political spectrum, from The New York Times' editorial board to conservative activist David Horowitz. UCI faculty members and alumni circulated a petition urging Drake to reverse his decision. Chemerinsky himself wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, saying "The whole point of academic freedom is that professors—and yes, even deans—should be able to speak out on important issues."

Some questioned whether Drake had been pressured to rescind the offer. They pointed out that the school is to be named for Donald Bren, a conservative real-estate developer.

After facing days of criticism, Drake, who said he had pulled the job offer of his own accord, recanted, offering Chemerinsky the job a second time. Chemerinsky accepted. In a joint statement, the two said they were committed to creating a school "founded on the bedrock principle of academic freedom."