UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake defends himself in the Los Angeles Times today for his firing of Erwin Chemerinsky as the school’s first dean for their new law school. He claims that he did not renege on the signed contract a week after signing it because of Chemerinsky’s political views, nor did he get pressured by the UC regents, donors, or politicians. So why did he fire Chemerinsky and embroil UCI in a completely avoidable controversy?
The University of California at Irvine over the last several months has conducted a nationwide search for the founding dean of our school of law. Last week, I made an offer to Duke Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, an eminent academician, legal scholar and commentator. I subsequently made the very difficult decision that Professor Chemerinsky was not the right person for the dean’s position and informed him that we were rescinding our offer and continuing the recruitment process.
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.
Really? So after conducting a lengthy search process and whittling the choices down to a select few legal scholars, Drake chose Professor Chemerinsky, presumably after interviewing him on at least a couple of occasions. He negotiated a contract with Chemerinsky in order to secure the proper level of compensation. They managed to agree rather quickly on terms, and both men signed the contract.
And somehow, after all of this effort together reached a successful conclusion, Drake suddenly discovered that he couldn’t “partner” with Chemerinsky? Does that sound honest to anyone? At what point in the week that followed the execution of the contract did he figure this out, and why?
Just taking this at face value, it serves as an admission of incompetence. Hiring managers sometimes have to make decisions quickly when it comes to lower-level positions — and I have plenty of experience with regretful hiring decisions. In my fifteen years managing call centers and hiring entry-level office staff, I never rescinded an offer to an applicant unless a background check or drug test failed after the decision was made.
And Dean of Law isn’t exactly a walk-in application type of job. Executive hires involve talent searches, tons of money, lunches, dinners, and plenty of personal contact, a process in which I have participated in the past. They take months to get right, and all indications are that Drake searched for a long time before settling on Chemerinsky. If, after all of that effort, Drake didn’t know that he couldn’t “partner” with Chemerinsky until after they both signed the contract, then he’s at best a complete incompetent as an executive and should be fired.
At least in terms of the regents, Drake seems to be telling the truth. Stalwart conservative and former UC regent Ward Connerly told the Washington Post that the regents couldn’t have done anything about the hiring decision, and would have been extremely unlikely to even express disapproval:
Calls to several University of California regents were not returned, but Ward Connerly, architect of the state’s anti-affirmative-action law and a UC regent for 12 years, said he does not believe concerns from regents could have derailed Chemerinsky’s hiring. The regents “give great deference to the decisions of the chancellors and the president, whether they believe in them or not,” he said.
Drake got cold feet. Something happened in that week to intimidate Drake, and he breached Chemerinsky’s contract rather than defend his own hiring decision. Even if Drake’s explanation in the LA Times is honest and accurate, it demonstrates his unfitness for any executive position. UCI doesn’t need a law school, but it needs a lawyer — fast.
UPDATE: Professor Victor Davis Hanson wants Chemerinsky rehired.
In response to Nauseated Don in the comments, it doesn’t take a legal expert to know that when two parties sign a contract, one party can’t just act as if it doesn’t exist. I’m not a lawyer but I spent years as a hiring manager in call centers, as well as someone who had to deal with contracts on a regular basis. Breach of contract is not a difficult concept.
Chemerinsky obviously got fired for his political beliefs, and even commenters who disagree with me on my position here accept that. If that’s OK, get prepared for firings of conservatives from campuses around the nation, and don’t bitch about it when it happens; we will have validated the effort. That’s even worse than not hiring someone for their political beliefs, an option that was open to Drake up to the point where he signed the contract.
UPDATE II: The selection process took nine months. It took Drake nine months to select Chemerinsky and agree on compensation, but in the week after signing the contract, he discovered that he couldn’t partner with Chemerinsky. Two sources tell the LA Times that the firing was ideological (one on the record, one off).