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UCI scandal from the horses' mouths; right-wing bogeymen still unnamed

September 14, 2007 | 12:12 am

On Friday's Opinion page we have Erwin Chemerinsky's "Dumped over an op-ed" and UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake's "Why I let Chemerinsky go." First excerpt is from the hired-then-unhired law dean:

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, however, the chancellor at UC Irvine, Michael V. Drake, withdrew the offer. He told me that I had proved to be "too politically controversial." Those, by the way, were the exact words that he said I could use to describe the reason for the decision. He told me that he had not expected the extent of opposition that would develop.

What was it about my views that was too controversial? Only one example was mentioned: an Op-Ed article I wrote on these pages criticizing a proposed regulation by then-Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to shorten the time death row prisoners have to file their habeas corpus petitions.

Now the executioner:

My decision -- and the motivation for it -- have been the subject of extensive media coverage over the last few days, much of which has been characterized by assumption, conjecture and hearsay.

Let me set the record straight. I made a management decision -- not an ideological or political one -- to rescind the offer to Professor Chemerinsky. The decision was mine and mine alone. It was not based on pressure from donors, politicians or the University of California Board of Regents. It was a culmination of discussions -- with many people over a period of time -- that convinced me that Professor Chemerinsky and I would not be able to partner effectively to build a world-class law school at UC Irvine. That is my overarching priority.

My decision was absolutely not based on Professor Chemerinsky's place on the political spectrum, which is, in fact, quite similar to my own.

One of those two men is either lying or splitting a hair so thin I can't see it. "Politically controversial" and "not an ideological or political [decision]" are mutually exclusive. As are "the extent of opposition" and "the decision was mine and mine alone." Since Drake is the one whose story has changed with the telling -- without ever quite making sense -- he seems most ripe for further investigation. This is what the L.A. Times news department came up with:

[P]rofessor Elizabeth F. Loftus, a member of the saerch committee for the school dean [...] said Thursday that the chancellor told the panel during an emergency meeting Wednesday night that he was forced to make the decision by outside forces whom he did not name. A second member of the committee confirmed Loftus' account to the Los Angeles Times but asked to remain anonymous.

"I asked," Loftus said, "whether it was one or two voices or an avalanche, and the answer is that it was an avalanche, but we are not supposed to capitulate to that in the world of academic freedom."

Italics mine. You'll recall that in the early versions of the story Drake was reported to have expressed concern about Chemerinsky's acceptability to the UC Board of Regents (a body whose lack of political personnel meddling was detailed by Amina Khan here). Well, the latest Times story quotes a bunch of regents, and not a one has any idea what Drake might have been talking about. A typical quote:

Regent John Moores said the chance that any regent knew about Chemerinsky's hiring as dean and sought to intervene was "as close to zero as anything can get."

Moores noted that people might speculate on what the board of regents would do in a certain situation. But that doesn't mean that any of the regents have actually weighed in: "It's awfully easy to hide behind the notion that the regents might not approve this."

It's even easier to hide behind the presumed political ogre-ness of UCI law school benefactor (and namesake) Donald Bren, patriarch of Irvine and bane to SoCal lefties since long before I was born. "And, of course, you have to wonder about the backstory," Marc Lacter wrote at LA Observed. "After all, it is the Donald Bren School of Law. You mean to say that this very right-wing real estate guy didn't have a hand in what happened? It's hard to believe, even though Drake insists it's the case." Italics Lacter's. Over at TruthDig, UCI's Jon Wiener seconded the motion: " At the top of the list of suspects was Donald Bren, the Newport Beach Republican billionaire who has donated $20 million to UCI to fund the salary of the dean and 11 faculty positions."

The main problem so far with this theory is that the two parties involved flatly deny it. From our story:

In an interview, Drake said the law school's namesake and $20 million donor, Donald Bren, had no role in the decision. "He stayed away from the decision entirely," he said.

From the Cal Law blog:

For the record, Drake told Cal Law that Bren had nothing to do with the decision and a Bren spokesman also told us that his boss hasn't shared a pro or con opinion on Chemerinsky with anyone.

Until Drake comes out with a story that makes sense, and irons out what are some directly contradictory statements being attributed to his mouth, I am going to suspect that the right-wing bogeymen forcing his hand are just that -- bogeymen. Not unlike the same evil Bush administration censors who sadly forced KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour's hand in firing commentator Sandra Tsing Loh for mistakenly saying the F word on air. If Bren indeed brought the hammer down, I will be the first to admit my naivete, but even then, that would just make the chancellor of a great public university a craven liar and a coward. If, on the other hand, he used the chimera of imagined political objection to cover up his own unspoken reasons for jettisoning the same man he signed to a contract just days before, then he's worse than a coward -- he's a man willing to intentionally damage the climate of free expression just to avoid a little truth-telling in personnel decisions. The next time Drake whispers about right-wing bogeymen, the audience should whisper right back: Give us some names.

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