UC Irvine gave Orange County billionaire and philanthropist Donald Bren some say in the selection of the dean for the forthcoming Donald Bren School of Law in exchange for Bren’s $20 million donation, the Los Angeles Times reported last week.
It is still unclear, however, what influence, if any, Bren had in UCI Chancellor Michael Drake’s decision to rescind the offer of founding dean of the law school to noted constitutional scholar and Duke professor of law Erwin Chemerinsky in September. Following a nationwide public outcry, Drake reoffered the position to Chemerinsky, who accepted.
The Times obtained a gift agreement between UCI and the Donald Bren Foundation that outlines what Bren would receive in exchange for his donation. According to the agreement, law school buildings must bear a sign reading ‘Donald Bren School of Law’ at least twice as large as the sign bearing the building’s name. Bren’s name must be the most prominently displayed, according to the agreement.
The agreement also includes a provision that the UCI chancellor ‘periodically and confidentially consult’ with the Donald Bren Foundation regarding searches for all deans of the law school, including the founding dean. It does not specify what influence the foundation is allowed to have, nor whether the UCI Chancellor is required to follow any recommendations from the foundation.
The agreement raises questions over the extent to which private donors should be allowed to influence public institutions, such as universities, to which they donate. The Times quoted Jeffrey S. Brand, dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, who said that the agreement ‘could be viewed as a subterfuge permitting undue influence.’
Since the offer rescinded was made public in September, rumors have circulated that Bren, one of Orange County’s top Republican activists and fundraisers, may have put pressure on Drake not to hire Chemerinsky because of Chemerinsky’s outspoken liberal views. Chemerinsky has represented outed CIA agent Valerie Plame and detainees of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and is noted for his activism on behalf of liberal issues.
In September, a spokesman for Bren said that Bren had nothing to do with Drake’s decision, and Drake said separately that he had had no conversations with Bren regarding the selection of Chemerinsky. The Bren Foundation said in a statement issued last week, ‘neither the foundation nor Mr. Bren was consulted prior to the hiring, and as we’ve stated before, Mr. Bren didn’t know enough about Dr. Chemerinsky to offer an opinion and has not offered an opinion on Dr. Chemerinsky in the past or up to this moment.’
Chancellor Drake, however, has been evasive regarding whom he consulted before making his sudden decision to revoke Chemerinsky’s appointment and his exact reasons for doing so.
State Appeals Court Justice William Rylaarsdam wrote a letter to Drake dated Aug. 30 in which he said that, ‘I am concerned that he is the wrong person for a law school in Orange County. The selection committee should realize that Professor Chemerinsky and the faculty he would be inclined to recruit would not be well-received by [the Orange County business] community.’
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George also expressed some reservations about Chemerinsky. George sent a letter to a ‘UC Irvine selection committee,’ the Times reported in September, criticizing an op-ed Chemerinsky had written for the Aug. 16 Los Angeles Times in which he criticized a new federal law regarding whether death row inmates could have their cases reviewed in federal court. George wrote that Chemerinsky had made a ‘gross error’ in describing current state laws for death row inmates. However, George denies that he intended to dissuade the committee from hiring Chemerinsky. Chemerinsky insists that what he wrote was accurate.
The Times also reported in September that a group of prominent Orange County Republicans and Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich had made a concerted effort to derail Chemerinsky’s appointment, including circulating Drake’s cell phone number and staging call-ins. Antonovich told the Associated Press in September that appointing Chemerinsky ‘would be like appointing al-Qaeda in charge of homeland security.’
Drake, however, has insisted that his decision was in no way based on input from these sources.