RICHMOND — A group of Democratic lawmakers are pushing back against George Mason University’s plan to rename its law school after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Ten legislators from northern Virginia call the link between a $20 million anonymous donation to the school and the name change “disturbing,” and say the decision to honor the jurist, whose decisions have at times provoked controversy, should have been made in public.
“I don’t think a public school should be able to be bought this way,” said Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax).
The university last week announced the Board of Visitors’ intention to change the name of the George Mason School of Law to the Antonin Scalia School of Law in accordance with the wishes of an anonymous donor.
A gift of $20 million, the largest in the university’s history, from the donor and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation will be used to fund new scholarship programs.
David Rehr, senior associate dean at the law school, said reaction to the name change has been mixed, but that the university is undeterred.
“We continue to believe the significant scholarship gift to the university will benefit hundreds of students and honor an esteemed member of the Supreme Court,” he said. “We plan to move ahead with the name change.”
Before the new name can become official, the university needs the final approval of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, a 13-member panel of business and education leaders appointed by the governor.
Council spokesman Gregory Weatherford declined to comment and said the university has not submitted a formal name-change application.
Lawmakers on Tuesday evening sent Council Chairman G. Gilmer Minor III a letter urging members to reject the name change and ask the university to consider naming a building for Scalia instead of the law school.
They wrote, “Public universities do not operate in the shadows of secret money and executive sessions. While this kind of practice might be acceptable in the private sector or with a private school, it is not how Virginia’s public institutions are expected to operate.”
Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), who signed the letter, said the move should be thoroughly discussed.
“We want to make sure SCHEV doesn’t make the same mistake the Board of Visitors made in pushing this through and rushing this decision,” he said.
Scalia, who became a hero to conservatives, was known among other things for his Catholic faith and opposition to gay rights and affirmative action.
The lawmakers said associating Scalia with the law school could hurt the institution’s ability to attract talent and the reputations of alumni.
“His statements about the LGBT and New American communities were not representative of the highest ideals of our community or our Commonwealth,” they wrote.
But Rehr said the name change would propel the law school to national prominence.
“We’ve tragically become so polarized as a society you can’t really do anything on either side without people getting upset,” he said.