09/17/2007 11:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

UC Irvine Gets an "F" for Academic Freedom

UPDATE: I'm pleased to be able to update my post with the good news that UC Irvine has reversed course and announced that it will, after all, hire Erwin Chemerinsky.

The decision is a victory for academic freedom, and the result of a groundswell of well-deserved support for Erwin -- and opposition to politically-based hiring decisions -- from across the political spectrum.

The real test will now be whether UC Irvine gives Erwin the freedom and authority to build the first rate law school reflecting diversity of all kinds that he envisions and is so capable of creating. Anything else would be a tragic loss to all who can benefit from his endless talents.


Erwin Chemerinksy is one of America's leading constitutional scholars and teachers. He is also one of this country's foremost civil libertarians. Based on the former, he was recently offered the position as a founding dean of the new law school at UC Irvine. Based on the latter, it seems, the offer was revoked a few days later when Chemerinsky was told that his appointment would be "too politically controversial."

This is not the first time in American history that politics rather than academic merit appear to have driven a university's appointment decision, but it is not a happy history. When a public university is involved, the threat to academic freedom and First Amendment values is especially grave.

Unlike UC Irvine, the ACLU is proud of its association with Professor Chemerinsky. We have been co-counsel on a variety of cases, including Erwin's challenge to California's "three strikes" law on behalf of Leandro Andrade, who was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison for stealing $153 of videotapes.

If Erwin has any failing it is simply that he is too generous with his time. He is always available to students and colleagues. He has served on public commissions and testified before Congress. The media seeks him out as a commentator and for good reason. He can explain complicated legal issues simply, but he does not oversimplify or pander. Even more impressively, Erwin has done all of this while maintaining a full teaching load and writing an influential constitutional law treatise.

As impressive as they are, these professional accomplishments do not begin to do justice to Erwin as a person. He maintains a busier work schedule than anyone I know, but always has time for people who call seeking his advice and guidance. His personal integrity and commitment to principle are a model for the legal profession, but he is not an ideologue.

To describe him as "too politically controversial" to be the founding dean at UC Irvine Law School says far more about our times than it does about Erwin. He emerges from this unfortunate incident with his reputation intact. The same cannot be said for UC Irvine.