The George Mason School of Law will be renamed in honor of the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who died earlier this year.
The university announced Thursday that it has received $30 million in combined gifts to the George Mason Foundation to support the law school, the largest gift in the university’s history. The donations make possible three new scholarship programs. Twenty million dollars came from an anonymous donor, and $10 million came from the Charles Koch Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to colleges in the United States. The family is well known for its support of conservative political groups, sometimes stirring controversy.
The Board of Visitors approved the renaming of the school to the Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. “This is a milestone moment for the university,” Ángel Cabrera, the university’s president, said in a statement. “These gifts will create opportunities to attract and retain the best and brightest students, deliver on our mission of inclusive excellence, and continue our goal to make Mason one of the preeminent law schools in the country.”
Leonard A. Leo, a member of the Federalist Society who was close with Scalia and his family, was approached by a donor who asked that the university name the law school in honor of the late justice, and offered a $20 million donation. Leo said the donor was someone who had met and admired Scalia, but declined to describe him other than “a great philanthropist.”
“It was one of several schools that he’s familiar with,” Leo said. “He was aware that the school was looking to engage in a lot more extensive scholarship and academic activity. So it was among a number of schools he felt was appropriate for a naming.”
George Mason made sense, he said, because of its “intellectually rigorous program, that is very committed to the study of the rule of law in relation to Constitutional structure. It has a deep bench of talent that combines legal and economic principles, which is something that we’re sensitive to and interested in.” The gifts will help students, and will allow the school “to bring more high-quality faculty on board, create some centers to step up the amount of attention they pay to certain areas of the law, like administrative law, which is an area that Justice Scalia cared deeply about,” Leo said.
“…The family is quite pleased that the school will bear their husband’s, their father’s name,” he said. It was especially joyful since Scalia loved teaching so much. “I have tremendous affection for the Justice. It was really wonderful – extraordinary — to see this opportunity unfold, and so soon after his passing,” Leo said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Scalia’s colleague on the Supreme Court for more than two decades and a close friend, said in a statement:
“Justice Scalia was a law teacher, public servant, legal commentator, and jurist nonpareil. As a colleague who held him in highest esteem and great affection, I miss his bright company and the stimulus he provided, his opinions ever challenging me to meet his best efforts with my own.
“It is a tribute altogether fitting that George Mason University’s law school will bear his name. May the funds for scholarships, faculty growth, and curricular development aid the Antonin Scalia School of Law to achieve the excellence characteristic of Justice Scalia, grand master in life and law.”
Law school Dean Henry N. Butler said Scalia’s name evokes what he considers the strengths of the school: civil liberties, law and economics, and constitutional law.
“His career embodies our law school’s motto of learn, challenge, lead,” Butler said. “As a professor and jurist, he challenged those around him to be rigorous, intellectually honest, and consistent in their arguments.”
Scalia was a prominent symbol of conservative thought, one who often infuriated liberals. He was known for his support of the principle of “originalism,” or looking to the meaning of the words of the Constitution when it was created, rather than viewing it as a living, changing document. He was known for his dedication to his Catholic faith, and for his opposition to abortion, gay rights and affirmative action. His incisive, intellectual writing (often with a few zingers tucked into lengthy opinions) helped make him a hero to conservatives.
“When we speak about diversity, that includes diversity of thought and exposing ourselves to a range of ideas and points of view,” Cabrera said in the university’s statement. “Justice Scalia was an advocate of vigorous debate and enjoyed thoughtful conversations with those he disagreed with, as shown by his longtime friendship with Justice Ginsburg. That ability to listen and engage with others, despite having contrasting opinions or perspectives, is what higher education is all about.”
Scalia was so divisive in his lifetime that even immediately after his death, people were arguing fiercely about his legacy.
At Georgetown University, his alma mater, one law school professor objected to the idea of the campus community mourning him, touching off a heated debate.
So the news of the renaming — first reported by Nina Totenberg of NPR — sparked strong reactions.
Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University Law School who admired Scalia and remembers sitting in on a contracts class taught by him, and hearing him engage in spirited discussions at faculty lunches at the University of Chicago, said, “Justice Scalia was singular. Because not only was he probably the most-discussed justice of our time, but he represented a particular position … originalism as a method of interpreting the Constitution. And he was a law professor for many years … Naming a law school after a former law professor and one of the most erudite of justices would be a very appropriate thing to do.”
Virginia Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) circulated a petition, urging people to sign it if they feel public comment and input from students and alumni is important. “While it is the University’s prerogative to make the name change, I am deeply concerned about the message this sends,” he wrote. “Removing George Mason, a Founding Father, from the school’s name and replacing it with the name of a former justice known for his controversial and extremely conservative opinions is a bold move. But not a good one.”
“It’s sort of stunning,” Marcus said by phone, “so transactional, so crass.”
It seems short-sighted, he said. “My concern is 25 years from now Scalia won’t be looked on as a great jurist. I think his opinions will look a little backward,” he said.
The new scholarships to be awarded by the university are named in honor of three people: The Antonin Scalia Scholarship was designed for students who embody academic excellence. The A. Linwood Holton Jr. Leadership Scholarship, named for a former Virginia governor, will be given to students “who have overcome barriers to academic success, demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities, or have helped others overcome discrimination in any facet of life,” according to the university. The F.A. Hayek Law, Legislation, and Liberty Scholarship, named for the 1974 Nobel Prize winner in economics, will be given to students studying the application of economic principles to law.
“The growth of George Mason University’s law school, both in size and influence, is a tribute to the hard work of its leaders and faculty members,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in the university statement. “I am particularly pleased that new scholarship awards for students who face steep barriers in their academic pursuits will be named in honor of former Virginia governor Linwood Holton, an enduring and appropriate legacy for a man who championed access to education for all Virginians.”
In an email sent to the campus community Thursday, Cabrera noted that the Board of Visitors also voted to name a space on campus next to the Center for the Arts after Holton, “who in 1972 signed into law the establishment of George Mason as an independent university. During his term as governor, he fought for school desegregation and equal opportunity, values of accessibility and inclusion that we hold so dear at Mason.”
Charles Koch Foundation President Brian Hooks said in a statement: “We’re excited to support President Cabrera and Dean Butler’s vision for the law school as they welcome new students and continue to distinguish Mason as a world-class research university.”
The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia must give final approval for the law school’s new name.
This post has been updated.