Oops! In Dean Search Political Bias Went Public

George W. Dent

My institution, Case Western Reserve University School of Law, recently conducted a dean search. I was surprised to learn that one of the five finalists was Brad Smith.

Certainly his scholarly credentials were unimpeachable: He has published a couple of books and dozens of articles, many in top-flight law reviews. He is arguably the leading expert on election law.

He was also the best known candidate. He had been a member of the Federal Election Commission, nominated by President Clinton, and later its chairman. He knew the strengths and needs of our school and offered thoughtful ideas for the future. He also has good relations with many large donors who might help the school financially.

Why, then, was I surprised that he had reached the final stage of the dean search? Because Brad Smith is a conservative. The faculty at Case Law School is not particularly far to the left—politically, it’s a pretty average law school. But, except at the tiny handful of schools that are explicitly not left-wing, conservative law professors are rare.[1]Conservative deans are almost unheard of.

So I was not surprised to learn of a website created by an anonymous group of “concerned students, alumni and members of the Case Western community,” http://caseagainstsmith.com, offering a petition and sporting a headline, “Case Western Community Opposed to Bradley Smith for Law School Dean.” The statement that followed did not question Smith's scholarship, competence, or integrity. It said nothing about how he would perform as dean.

Nearly the entire circular was devoted to his views on a few legal issues, which the circular labeled “extremist.” As for the relevance of these views to the deanship, the circular said that having “such a polarizing and radical person as the public face” of the law school would “turn people off from our school and distract from our strengths.” In other words, regardless of how he might perform, his political views disqualified him from the deanship.

The circular prompted a letter from six faculty members of varying political views to the law school newspaper denouncing the “Case Against Smith” movement and declaring that “the very idea of an ideological litmus test for the deanship is offensive and contrary to the principles of academic freedom.”

I couldn’t agree more, so I was glad to see the letter. Still, I wonder if its sentiments were shared by most of the faculty. Even the discussion in the faculty meeting on the dean candidates suggested some contrary views. It was noted that Smith had said that he didn’t like racial preferences, but he knew the school’s commitment to recruit minority faculty and would pursue it in good faith. Some faculty members denounced this stance as inadequate. In other words, just harboring a supposedly conservative belief[2] rendered him unfit, even if he promised not to let it interfere with his behavior as dean.

More important, politics clearly do influence academic appointments at our school. On the rare occasions when we do hire a “conservative”—a term defined in our school and in most of academia to include moderates and to cover about 70% of Americans—it is almost always in a relatively apolitical field like corporate law or tax.

I suspect, then, that for much of the faculty the problem with Case Against Smith was not that it judged Brad Smith on the basis of his political views, but that it did so publicly, thereby exposing the school to criticism from, for example, the local newspaper, The Plain Dealer.

Most progressives know enough to be discreet and disguise their political partisanship on academic appointments. In addition to the faculty meeting on the dean candidates, the faculty were invited to express their views on an anonymous email survey. I suspect that that’s where most expressed their opposition to Smith. But of course I can’t confirm that because we’re not allowed to see the responses, even without the names of the respondents.

So what finally happened? We don’t know whether Brad Smith was one of those sent by the search committee to the university president or exactly how the president proceeded. All we know is that another candidate—Lawrence Mitchell—got the job. Mitchell is the author of Stacked Deck: A Story of Selfishness in America and Progressive Corporate Law, among others. Undoubtedly his political views are farther than Brad Smith’s from the center of the American spectrum, but no one labeled him an extremist or questioned whether his personal political views would “turn people off” or interfere with his performance as dean.

Perhaps there’s not much that you or I can do to end the politicization of academia, but at least we can publicize the fact that our universities are highly partisan politically and grossly unfair to anyone who is not of the left.

P.S. After the new dean was named, CaseAgainstSmith.com was revised to one page with an audio playing "Nah Nah Nah Nah, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye." The caption reads: "Academic leadership is no place for activists with a political agenda." At least they have a sense of humor.

[1] See my article, The Official Ideology of American Law Schools, Academic Questions, Summer, 2011.


[2] Of course, opposition to racial discrimination was once considered a liberal position. And many “progressives” have argued that racial preferences are not progressive. See Dent, George W. "Racial Preferences: Doubt in the Priesthood." Academic Questions 21.3 (2008). 

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