Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In support of Erwin Chemerinksy

(Update. Naturally, however, the support that Chemerinsky garnered among conservatives and libertarians who favored free expression even for those with whom they disagree was not matched in kind when it came to Larry Summers and his rescinded invitation to speak at the University of California. Perhaps I missed it in all the excitement, but where were liberals and progressives in support of Summers speaking at the UC in the face of progressivist disapproval? As always, one comes away from these encounters feeling played for a chump. Left liberal academics take conservative and libertarian support for liberal academic freedom as merely their due, and then operate on an entirely different principle when it comes to things the other way around. Volokh conspirator David Bernstein captures things accurately, here in the LA Times, via Instapundit:)

The Chemerinsky episode, disturbing though it was, should not distract us from the primary challenge facing academic freedom in American universities: the rise of an academic far-left establishment that seeks to use universities as a base for political activism, and is perfectly willing to violate accepted standards of academic freedom to achieve that goal. Anyone concerned with the future of American higher education has the duty to defend the values of scholarship and open debate against authoritarian political correctness. Unfortunately, by disinviting Summers, the UC regents failed miserably.

The only thing I'd disagree with in Bernstein's take is his description of the "rise" of this establishment - it has been the minor clergy in charge of the academy for at least a generation, and in fact the state of American higher education has been one of stultifying anti-intellectual debate for as long as I can remember. Students by and large understand it - many of them having understood that, and the necessary forms of hypocrisy it ordains if you want to get into college and beyond, since grade school. As one high school student remarked to me recently, people silly enough to get their politics from movie stars, musicians, or teachers deserve what they get. The students who tend to agree with the ideology in fact also understand it - because they welcome it and undertake higher education as a form of intellectual cocooning. There are, to be sure, many topics in the American academy in which a vigorous intellectual life is possible -they just don't happen to include most of the humanities, or wide swathes of law or the social sciences.

The law academy is abuzz with the recission of Erwin Chemerinsky's offer to become the inaugural dean of UC Irvine's new law school, on grounds that he is too politically controversial - a rare instance of being, in the academy, too liberal.

I guess I count as one of the rare conservative academics. I would count myself more as a moderate liberatarian, but moderate conservative is fine by me. In the real world, I fall just slightly right of center, but of course in the mad, mad world of the academy, that puts me somewhere between reactionary and fascist. I don't regard Chemerinsky as a radical - he is a strong left leaning liberal. There is not a lot on which I am likely to agree with him in politics, I imagine. But who knows and, frankly, who cares? So it is safe to say that I am defending him on principle when I say that it was a disgrace and a permanent stain on UC Irvine's new law school to rescind his offer. Those who made that decision were a group of small-minded twits, and if they did so thinking they were doing so in order to make conservatives like me happy, they should think again. I'll never think of the school without thinking sourly of this incident. As a proud graduate of the UC myself - undergraduate UCLA 1983 - well, this certainly makes me less proud.

I understand the point that an administrative position does not involve the same considerations concerning academic freedom as a regular professorship. And the lack of political and intellectual diversity in American law schools is a serious one, at least if you value the competition of ideas which, let's be honest, law professors taken as a group do not. I, for example, have high esteem for my faculty and colleagues, but nonetheless I live my intellectual life pretty much entirely outside my academic institution. (It is striking that intellectual diversity, and respect for ideas different from your own, tends to increase at some of the top ranking schools - Harvard, in particular - whereas mid-ranked law schools often tend to substitute political conformity for intellectual exchange; preferring the reproduction of a certain set of political ideas over the much more demanding task of debating them.)

But you don't address the bleak lack of intellectual diversity in American law schools by compounding the illiberal error of political quotas - and I've never heard any suggestion that Chemerinsky was not admirably liberal in his willingness to engage with ideas and views that were not his own. That is far from the norm for the academy as I know it, and it is that quality that would have made him a good dean, not the fact that he happened to be liberal or conservative. I am insulted that the UC would think that they were doing something for "people like me" in dumping Chemerinsky. I don't want a liberal for a dean, I don't want a conservative, I don't care about either one - I want someone who, whatever their individual views, is willing to create the conditions for honest debate over ideas across the political divides. This is just regular old classical liberalism, for chrisssake, what universities tell the world, parents, students, donors, that the university is about - even when it isn't - how hard can it be?

(Update. Pleased to see UCI came to its senses and renegotiated with him.)