The embattled chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, avoided a public rebuke from faculty Thursday as he apologized for withdrawing an offer to make a liberal legal scholar from Duke University the founding dean of the university’s new law school.
“I have learned a very painful lesson this week. I made a series of difficult decisions without consulting senior faculty early enough or often enough,” Chancellor Michael V. Drake said at the emergency meeting of the Academic Senate.
“I’m sorry for this and I apologize sincerely for the problems that it caused.”
Drake ignited a nationwide debate about academic freedom last week when he abruptly withdrew the offer from legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky. Chemerinsky, an international expert on constitutional law who represented exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame, said Drake told him the offer was being withdrawn because he was “too politically controversial.”
The chancellor denied that he had been pressured to release Chemerinsky. He re-extended the offer which Chemerinsky accepted on Monday after a private weekend meeting.
On Thursday, faculty met in a 400-seat lecture hall to decide whether to censure Drake for his actions, wavering between adopting two resolutions one that some called a harsh censure, and another that was less critical of the chancellor. In the end, the 43-member voting body of the larger Academic Senate voted to table both resolutions for further study.
The decision came after Drake reiterated that he had made both decisions on his own. He added that he had felt “uncertain” about Chemerinsky for the post of founding dean, despite his faith in the scholar’s impressive credentials. He did not offer any explanation of why that was, but said he now was reassured and felt Chemerinsky was the best choice.
“The decision was mine and mine alone. There were many opinions on all sides of the issue, but in the end the decision rested with me,” he said.
“I am certain now that he has the best chance of anyone I know to build our law school into the great institution it has the chance to be.”
Drake did not take questions after his brief statement and then left the hall so the faculty make their decision. Chemerinsky himself weighed in on the debate by way of a letter that was read to the standing-room only crowd.
The scholar wrote that a vote of no confidence against Drake would be a “crippling blow” to UC Irvine and its new law school. The school, the first new public law school in California in 40 years, will welcome its first class in 2009.
“I have learned that the Academic Senate is considering a proposed vote of ‘no confidence’ in Chancellor Michael Drake. With all my heart, I hope that you will not adopt this,” he wrote.
Over the weekend, Drake had “reaffirmed his unequivocal commitment to academic freedom for all deans and faculty in the university. I would not have accepted the position if I had the slightest doubt about this,” Chemerinsky wrote.
The faculty also voted Thursday to establish a small committee of professors who would meet privately with Drake and investigate what led him to withdraw his initial offer to Chemerinsky.
Some professors said they had been angry with Drake, but were impressed by his apology and had changed their mind about the need for a resolution against him.
“I think that this will hurt our university, hurt our campus. The world is watching us,” said David Bailey, a professor of pathology and dean of UCI’s school of medicine. “It’s been difficult for both of them and I think we need to … look at their strength and move forward and make this a new day for the University of California at Irvine.”
Others said UC Irvine faculty had to censure Drake to make a statement to the other universities that were watching the debate on academic freedom unfold in Orange County.
“The idea that we shouldn’t act in this way because we are in a fish bowl is incorrect. Because we are being examined and because we are becoming examples of what governance in a university should be, we should adopt this resolution,” said Steven White, a professor of physiology and biophysics. “I was impressed with the chancellor’s comments, but nevertheless I think we must make this statement.”
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