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Politics and the Law Dean

April 8, 2011

The School of Law at Case Western Reserve University could be forgiven for wanting a quiet conclusion to its dean search: since the most recent dean resigned in 2008, the process to replace him has lasted two and a half years, almost as long as it takes to earn a law degree.

But one of the candidates, Bradley Smith, has prompted an outcry among an anonymous group of students and alumni because of his political activity. Smith, a professor at Capital University, is a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission known for opposing campaign finance reform and advocating fewer restrictions on donations to political parties and candidates.

He visited Case Western Reserve on March 24, one of four candidates in the latest round of the law school’s dean search. The same day, a website protesting his candidacy appeared.

The website, run by an anonymous group of “concerned students, alumni and members of the Case Western community,” calls Smith an advocate for “extremist views.” The site lists his connection to conservative groups, including some that receive money from Charles G. and David H. Koch, the billionaire owners of Koch Industries who have drawn attention in recent months for their support of conservative causes. Those causes include the move to curtail unions' collective bargaining rights in Ohio, where Case Western is located.

A third-year law student who is organizing the opposition to Smith said that the candidate's political activism should disqualify him from the post. “He is not an academic, in my mind,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous because he is close to graduating. “He has crossed over into activism with a lot of his outside activities.”

Just how many people oppose Smith is unclear: the website includes a space to sign a petition but does not post the signatures. The student organizing the effort said he spoke with a “sizable number” of students who expressed concern, either about Smith’s views or about the potential for additional controversy, but could not give a confident estimate of how many there might be.

Among the faculty, there has been “remarkably little discussion,” said Raymond Ku, a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the law school. “There are some faculty who are not happy that a website like this was posted,” he said. “My understanding is they think it’s unfair to kind of question someone’s candidacy for a dean position based on their ideology or their politics.”

After the administrative turmoil of the past few years -- the previous dean, Gary Simson, resigned after two years in the position, and an interim dean has led the school since December 2008 -- the school needs a “neutral, well-respected academic dean,” the third-year student who opposes Smith said. He added that he also would not favor another of the four candidates, Lee Fisher, a Democrat and the former lieutenant governor of Ohio. No organized group or website has been created to oppose Fisher. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)

Smith is a tenured professor who has been published in leading law journals, co-wrote a casebook on election law and serves on the editorial board of the Election Law Journal. He said that involvement in politics is not unusual among law school deans, citing examples that included Christopher Edley Jr., of the law school of the University of California at Berkeley, who served in several posts in the Clinton administration; and James Huffman, former dean of Lewis & Clark Law School, who ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 2010.

During his campus visit, there was no suggestion that his political views or activity would be an issue for the university, he said. “They’re not afraid of people who have a political background here,” he said.

Jonathan Adler, a professor and the director of the law school's Center for Business Law and Regulation, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed that the website was an "anonymous smear campaign." "I have yet to hear any member of the faculty suggest that an individual's personal politics or ideological views should be a consideration," said Adler, who has written columns for National Review Online and contributes to a legal blog.

The law school spokeswoman, Carolyn Widdowson, declined to comment on the ongoing dean search. Ku said he believed the process could conclude within a few weeks.

Since lawyers often work in appointed or elected government positions, political experience can be valuable for law school professors and administrators, as long as the person had a record of working with both sides of the aisle, Ku said. He and Adler agreed that political views would not affect the faculty's judgment.

"We're picking a dean, not a U.S. Senator," Adler said.

 

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