Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fear the Ant-Eater: What Went Wrong at UCI

I posted over at Prawfs this morning about the comic/tragic doings at the as yet unborn law school at UC Irvine:
  • Just last week it appeared that UC Irvine had scored the amazing coup of landing Erwin Chemerinsky as the founding dean of its law school. For a brand new school to land such a well-known scholar (who had turned down a first-tier deanship only a year ago) seemed almost too good to be believed.

  • Now Brian Leiter is reporting on his blog that Chemerinsky has already been hired and fired from that post. This would be devastating for UC Irvine. As Leiter quite rightly points out: If this is true, who in their right mind would take the job?
  • UPDATE: The WSJ online has picked up the story now, confirming the facts with Chemerinsky himself. The WSJ quotes Chemerinsky as saying that he was told that he was fired because his political views would make him "a target for conservatives, a lightning rod." That's really, really bad for UCI. First, Erwin's views, while on the left, are pretty solidly within the mainstream. Second, did they not know his politics before they hired him? No one thought to Google him? Third, if you open your law school by making it clear that you will allow your donors to dictate the political views of your dean, good luck finding qualified candidates of any political stripe willing to take the job.
I think there's an interesting MoneyLaw twist to all of this. If you read the comments to my post over there, at least one of the commenters raises the possibility of there being a niche for an explicitly conservative law school. (Of course, SoCal already has a conservative law school. It's called Pepperdine.) That may be, but that's sure not what UCI said they were going to be doing with their new law school. If anything, they seemed to say the opposite in their initial announcement of the school:
  • The school will produce future leaders in law, government and business, and UCI law graduates will be particularly encouraged to pursue careers in public service, including non-governmental organizations and philanthropic agencies.
  • As part of their training, UCI law students will provide legal services to people who are unable to afford counsel. They also will be encouraged to pursue public interest law through programs focusing on underserved communities.
My point is that there seemed to be no consistent vision for the place from the start. Orange County is a conservative place and the principal donor to the law school is, by all accounts, a conservative guy. This seems an odd place and circumstance in which to try to found a public interest law school. We've talked on here before about the importance of a law school having a vision and getting everyone in the community to buy into it. It seems that UCI was unable to do that even before it had hired its first faculty member.

This failure to adequately think through exactly what the law school was supposed to be about led to the embarrassment of this morning, one that is likely to hang over UCI for some time.


Blogger Marie T. Reilly said...

What can you make of a start up law school that adopts as its principal mission preparing students for careers in public service? I don't get the business plan-- how wide is the market for students who can cough up $60-100K for a law degree that prepares them to be unpaid or underpaid champions of the oppressed? The "we're not in it for the money" spin on law school mission may be a trend in the making. Check out the mission of the Charleston School of Law, launched in 2003:

My friends who organize and lead lawyers in public interest practice cringe at the term "public service." If you really mean provision of legal service to the poor, underprivileged and otherwise weak among us, the phrase to use is "pro bono." That phrase has fallen out of use in start up law school mission rhetoric perhaps because it is too clear on the point that specializing in "doing good" with your law degree probably won't pay your bills.

9/14/2007 9:55 AM  

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