Monday, September 17, 2007

Winging It

Although I have more than a passing interest in it, I haven't blogged too much about the UC-Irvine/Chemerinsky affair. Virtually everyone -- left, right, and center -- seems to be in agreement that a) Chemerinsky was treated really badly and b) this was a bone-headed, if not crippling, start for the new law school.

However, while even most conservatives have been reasonably united in their condemnation of UC-Irvine, some have been grumbling that had this been a conservative candidate being drummed out by liberals, nobody would make a peep. Texas Law Professor Brian Leiter takes on this resurrection of the classic "conservative victimization" argument today, and I think he's spot on:
From an objective perspective, one might have thought it relevant that from the actual McCarthy era to the present, those who have been fired from academic jobs in the U.S. do appear to be all on the left end of the political spectrum (though I hasten to add that L'Affaire Chemerinsky is far more mild than what happened during the McCarthy era, or what has happened more recently to Professor Finkelstein at DePaul--it tells us more about the venal politics of Orange County, and the spinelessness of the Irvine Admininstration, than it does about anything else).

Does anyone really doubt that if, say, a "Chemerinsky of the right"--a high-profile, conservative constitutional law scholar at a top, if not super elite, law school (say, Steven Calabresi at Northwestern or Eugene Volokh at UCLA)--were treated the same way as Professor Chemerinsky (offered a job, signed a contract, then had the offer rescinded because of political pressure from outside the university), that the reaction would not have been exactly the same? There is simply something creepy about the spectacle of anti-intellectual low lifes with power or money being able to undermine university appointments at the 11th hour, and it is that, more than anything else, to which I think everyone in the academy is reacting. (Here is a profile of one of those reported to be involved in torpedoing the Chemerinsky appointment. Who would want to be involved with a university where people like this can actually intimidate administrators?)

I doubt every academic firing that's been political charged has come from the left side of the spectrum, but the point is well-taken. The update Brian writes actually mentions the case that immediately came to my mind: the strong defense by many prominent liberal professors of then-Professor Michael McConnell when his nomination by President Bush to the 10th Circuit was being held up. McConnell is undeniably conservative (he was on President Bush's Supreme Court short-list), but is widely respected by liberals and when some of our interest groups tried to trip up his nomination, the academic community reacted in force and en masse.

UPDATE: Leiter reports that Chemerinsky has been rehired as the UC-Irvine law school dean, and has accepted.


Anonymous said...

McConnell seems to me to be a peculiar comparison, since it's much more defensible to oppose a nomination to a court for political reasons than it is to oppose the hiring of a law school Dean for political reasons.

But it makes your point well: Even in a much grayer case, liberal academics did in fact stand up for a respected conservative intellectual's hiring.

PG said...

I think liberal academics hold academia in such high regard that if someone can succeed in this environment and reach elite levels, even if they don't agree with the substance of the person's politics, they'll back his intellectual and other abilities. Conservatives are more suspicious of academia, partly because of anti-intellectualism and partly because of its dominance by liberals, so telling them that X is a tenured UC Berkeley law prof hardly makes them think the person is worthwhile.

If anything goes wrong with Yoo's academic career, however, I think that's where the rubber would meet the road for liberal academics: are they ready to stand up for Torture Memo Man?