Friday, September 14, 2007

O.C. goes P.C. on E.C.

"O.C." of course stands for Orange County, the home of U.C. Irvine, whose brand new law school is sorely testing Mark Twain's maxim that there's no such thing as bad publicity by making headlines before a single student has enrolled, through the firing, just days after the hiring, of founding dean Erwin Chemerinsky ("E.C."). If I didn't know Chemerinsky as well as I do, I would assume that the powers that be at Irvine had discovered some skeleton in his closet, like an outstanding warrant for dealing crack or a secret life as a mafia hit man. That's because the official explanation is so transparently idiotic. First, University Chancellor Michael Drake said that he had gotten heat from conservatives (presumably alumni?) who thought Chemerinsky too liberal. Then, perhaps realizing that a state institution might be in legal trouble for rescinding a deal based on the political views of an employee, Drake backtracked and said it wasn't the substance of Chemerinsky's views so much as the fact that he was publicly outspoken. Quoted in a L.A. Times story (here), Drake expressed disappointment that on the very day that Chemerinsky was offered the job, he authored an Op-Ed critical of the Justice Dept's handling of capital cases. Drake said:
we had talked to him in June about writing op-ed pieces and that he would have to focus on things like legal education in this new role, and then here comes another political piece. It wasn't the subject, it was its existence. What he said doesn't matter."
This is so unbelievably stupid that it can only be a lie. If Drake meant Chemerinsky wouldn't have time to devote to "political" causes while serving as dean, he obviously doesn't know Chemerinsky. Nor is there any inconsistency between personal outspokenness and deaning. A law school dean is not a judge, and even some judges (e.g., 7th Cir Judge Richard Posner) are extremely outspoken when writing in their personal capacities. So long as it is clear that a law school dean is speaking for himself as a scholar rather than on behalf of his institution, there's absolutely nothing wrong with his taking public positions. Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh has been a vocal critic of various Bush Administration policies lately, and that certainly hasn't harmed the reputation of Yale. Closer to Irvine and on the conservative side of the political spectrum, Pepperdine Law Dean Kenneth Starr has (quite properly) not scaled back his public activities since assuming the helm there.

Accordingly, it would appear that the only plausible explanation for UC-Irvine's decision to can Chemerinsky was the first one given: pressure from the political right. I'll have more to say about this episode in coming posts, but for now I'll just ask readers to keep it in mind the next time someone denounces universities as hotbeds of left/liberal political correctness.

11 comments:

Sobek said...

"...but for now I'll just ask readers to keep it in mind the next time someone denounces universities as hotbeds of left/liberal political correctness."

I don't think this example undermines that thesis at all, especially given that we're talking about one professor out of however many thousands in America. The fact that the administration caved to conservative pressure doesn't mean the university's default position is not liberal.

Also anecdotally, the professors at my school were overwhelmingly liberal. For the most part I didn't care, although I am a conservative, because (a) even the most liberal among them realized they were there to teach the case law, and no one is so liberal that he or she can change what the courts have said, and (b) I think I benefit more from people challenging my assumptions than from people confirming them. I actually felt sorry for my liberal classmates, who didn't get the same chance I did to hone their analytical skills under sometimes extremely rigid scrutiny.

md said...

Agreed with Sobek. Even assuming that Mike is right, and this is a single data point of "conservative PC" evidence, I don't see why one ought to "keep it in mind" if it's dwarfed by evidence of the obverse "liberal PC" reality.

Mithras said...

Agreed. I feel sorry for your classmates, too, Sobek.

Tam said...

I went to a law school that had an overwhelmingly conservative student body: Rutgers Newark.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I think there's a difference between a faculty that is overwhelmingly liberal (or conservative) and a faculty or student body that is "politically correct" as that term is commonly used. A PC institution is one that uses informal (and perhaps formal) mechanisms to silence people who challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. What sobek describes is not silencing of conservatives (although that may have occurred too, in which case it should be condemned). In any event, my point was not that political correctness is, contrary to popular opinion, largely a conservative rather than liberal phenomenon. My point was simply that one shouldn't assume that because the catchphrase was created by the right, it necessarily applies only to the left. (One could make, and I have made, similar points about other tendentious terms, like "judicial activism.")

md said...

I agree altogether with what Mike has said in his most recent comment. It is certainly true that one can be a liberal or a conservative, and be at the same time opposed to silencing others who do not affirm the prevailing orthodoxy. It's also true that one cannot assume that the "PC" label, even though it was inspired by and even still primarily applies to the explicit or more often unstated liberal catechesism of the university (and certainly the law school), necessarily applies only to that catechism and not to the equally objectionable conservative variety.

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