In a move that shocked legal scholars and outraged faculty, University of California Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake has fired noted liberal law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who had signed a contract only a few days ago to become the first dean of UC Irvine’s new law school. Chemerinsky told me, “I do not know what pressures caused Michael Drake to change his mind. He simply said that I had proven too politically controversial to go forward.”

According to a Los Angeles Times story by Henry Weinstein and Garrett Therolf, Chancellor Drake flew to North Carolina on Tuesday and told Chemerinsky at a hotel near the airport that that he did not realize the extent to which there were conservatives out to “get” him.

At the top of the list of suspects was Donald Bren, a Newport Beach Republican billionaire who has donated $20 million to UCI to fund the salary of the dean and 11 faculty positions. The L.A. Times reported that Chemerinsky said Drake told him “concerns” had emerged from the UC regents, who would have had to approve the appointment, and that the chancellor thought there would have been a “bloody battle” among the regents over the appointment.

It’s the biggest violation of academic freedom of the year, and the biggest in the history of UCI.

Academia is supposed to be committed to the pursuit of excellence, and scholars are supposed to be protected from hostile political winds. That’s the bedrock of the university in America.

Chemerinsky is currently a professor of law at Duke; he taught at USC for 21 years before that. He’s been a prominent figure in Los Angeles, writing for the L.A. Times Op-Ed page and commenting frequently in the media on legal issues. He was named one of the top 20 legal thinkers in America by Legal Affairs magazine in 2005.

The L.A. Times story included quotes from leading conservative legal scholars condemning UCI for its move. John Eastman, a conservative constitutional scholar and dean of Chapman University Law School in Orange, who frequently debates Chemerinsky, told the paper that UCI’s move was “a serious misstep.”

UCI is still on summer break; fall quarter doesn’t begin until Sept. 24 — but faculty members who were on e-mail Wednesday were talking about adopting some kind of motion of censure or no confidence in the chancellor.

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