Snarky Behavior

UCI and I

October 10, 2007 · Leave a Comment

My good friend Joe was in town this weekend. His dad is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and has played an instrumental role in laying the groundwork for the new law school there.

For those of my fellow Irvinians who haven’t been following the news, there has been quite a debacle over the selection of a dean for the new law school at UCI. Chancellor Michael Drake extended an offer to Duke University professor Erwin Chemerinsky, then shortly thereafter, reneged on the offer. Chemerinsky claimed foul play, stating that the reason behind the decision to hire, then fire him was because he was “too liberal” to reasonably represent a school in the heart of the conservative bastion of the OC. Drake weakly explained to the media that his decision was “managerial,” but ultimately caved and re-extended the position for the sake of public relations.

I have no insider information on what actually went down here, but I can reasonably speculate: Drake went out on a limb, extending an offer to a “name.” Well, the only “name” that matters in Irvine is Donald Bren, the principal owner of the Irvine Company. Yeah, he’s the one who contributed the $20 million to get his name on the building.

Bren’s the easy target, of course, and I’m sure he had a say. But there are a lot of wealthy, libertarian, extremely conservative, and extremely powerful people that could’ve pulled Drake’s leash on this hire. Most of these people are real estate moguls who could do without the next generation of lawyers coming out of Orange County being trained by a stable of professors hand-selected by a man who dared meddle as an outsider in the insider’s game of California proposition politics… Stay out of our beach community, you bum! [Coffee mug thrown at forehead].

Frankly, I’m of the position that the the cards in academia are stacked against conservatives, and if the people of Orange County want a conservative (public) law school, it should be provided to them. Like it or not, Chemerinsky was a poor hiring decision, in that sense.

The larger issue to me is the further disillusionment that “academia” is insulated from political pressure. I recently wrote about Lee Bolinger caving to the demands of vocal alumni and national leaders by giving a tongue lashing to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

We like to think that institutions of higher learning, and especially public institutions of higher learning, exist for noble pursuits… namely knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  Even professional schools such as SIPA or Irvine Law (in theory) offer skill sets to individuals who can then implement those skills in a multitude of productive opportunities and interests.

But disinterested knowledge and disinterested skills must be funded by disinterested sources.  Bren gave his money to UCI not to create a generation of do-gooder public interest lawyers who would muck up the open space laws in Orange County, but to create a generation of lawyers who would defend him from such do-gooders, or even better, enter public service and legislate against such do-gooders.  Similarly, in order to placate the Jewish donors at Columbia who are critical of a Middle Eastern program sympathetic to Palestian occupation, Bollinger chose to throw childish insults at the Iranian president.

More and more, the measure of good stewardship for university presidents and deans isn’t the quality of research produced, or even the prestige of the institution under his/her watch, but a) the amount of money fundraised, b) the amount of grants secured (which are becoming more and more competitive) and c) the amount of productive patents acquired.

The more disproportionate a) becomes in this measure, the more political pandering we shall see.  And the disinterested pursuit of knowledge or opportunity will suffer.

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