Late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. (AP/Josh Reynolds)

George Mason University’s president has responded to concerns raised by faculty, students and others that the public university has become overly dependent on private donations — questions prompted by one recent gift from a foundation with conservative ties and another that asked that the university’s law school be renamed to honor late U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.

“I extend my congratulations to Dean Henry Butler for raising the largest gift in university history,” Angel Cabrera, the president of George Mason University, wrote Sunday in a letter to the Faculty Senate, “and to his faculty for what I expect to be a transformative milestone in the already remarkable trajectory of a leading law school.”

This spring, university officials announced $30 million in gifts to the law school. The donations included $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, which has donated generously to many institutions and, for some, raised concerns that its gifts conveyed a conservative political agenda, and $20 million from an anonymous donor who asked to rename the law school in honor of Scalia.

It was a defining decision for the law school and for the university, and an issue that resonated far beyond the Virginia campus: In an era of declining public funding for higher education, what is the role of private money?

And with Scalia’s polarizing legacy — brilliant or bigoted, depending on the lens — at the heart of it, the school’s name took on even greater weight.

Scalia’s dedication to the principle of “originalism” — using the meaning of the words of the Constitution at the time it was written rather than treating it as a living document — was welcomed by many conservatives and condemned by many liberals. Likewise, his outspoken commitment to his Catholic faith earned him both heartfelt support and bitter disdain; he opposed gay rights, affirmative action and abortion.

Cabrera acknowledged that questions had been raised about the economic implications of the gifts, the question of influence of the donor on academic affairs and the idea of renaming the law school in honor of a jurist whose opinions have been divisive.

He spoke strongly of the university’s ideals and  commitment to academic freedom: “We must ensure that George Mason University remains an example of diversity of thought, a place where multiple perspectives can be dissected, confronted and debated for the benefit and progress of society at large. Rejecting a major naming gift in honor of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on the basis that some of us disagree with some of his opinions would be inconsistent with our values of diversity and freedom of thought.”

Many at the university welcomed the gifts, which will fund three new scholarship programs and give the school more leverage to attract strong students and faculty. A school official said last week that some alumni have even asked if their diplomas could be changed to reflect the new name.

But in a polarized political climate, others felt just as strongly that the gifts, the sources and the terms were questionable.

It wasn’t the first time questions had been asked about private donors, especially the Kochs, who are known for their support of conservative political groups as well as for their generosity to many academic institutions.

A student group has been working for years to raise awareness and concern about donations.

Last month, a group of Democratic lawmakers wrote to the head of the governing body that must grant final approval to the law school’s name change, expressing their concern. 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.”

Last week, a state lawmaker wrote to that organization, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, with a petition signed by more than 1,200 people objecting to the idea and asking for more public input.

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), who submitted the petition, wrote in an email, “The Law School’s description of the grant and quid pro quo have been incomplete at best and deceptive at worst.

“It’s clear from the grant agreement that this is not a $10 million gift or a $30 million gift but a series of annual donations conditioned on the law school toeing the Koch’s line and retaining the Dean or finding a suitable replacement.

“I don’t know how the law school can say they retain their academic independence when the purse strings are controlled by the Kochs and if the school, the dean, or the Professors lose the ‘focus’ on law and economics, their money goes away.”

petition, signed by scores of faculty and staff members, deplores the decision. It reads, in part:

… we denounce the renaming of our law school after Antonin Scalia. This renaming undermines our mission as a public university and tarnishes our reputation. We also recognize it as an affront to those in our community who have been the targets of Scalia’s racism, sexism, and homophobia.

This multimillion dollar gift arrives at a moment of acute financial hardship at Mason, following years of declining state support. However, the values that Scalia affirmed from the bench do not reflect the values of our campus community. Further, the renaming decision was made without regard for faculty, staff, and student input and consent.

As a Supreme Court Justice, Scalia enacted direct harms to many in our student body, especially students of color, women, and LGBT students. To those students — and all students committed to realizing our university’s stated commitment to a diverse, accessible, and inclusive learning environment — we want to affirm publicly our commitment to fighting alongside them for a just world, beginning with a just university.

Cabrera wrote,

I acknowledge and respect the fact that some of you find some of his opinions objectionable and even personally offensive. Agreement with his views is, however, not the reason why we are renaming the law school for Justice Scalia. We are not endorsing his opinions on any specific issue.

We are recognizing a man who served our country at the highest level of government for 30 years and who many experts of diverse ideological persuasions — from faculty colleagues in our law school, to his peers on the Supreme Court, to the president of the United States — consider to have been a great jurist who had a profound impact in the legal field.

 

He said that the $50 million the Charles Koch Foundation has given over the last decade amounts to 0.6 percent of the annual budget over that time. And he wrote,

I am grateful to our donors for believing in us — including the Charles Koch Foundation, one of our most consistent and generous donors. But we are still far from the levels of many of our peer institutions in terms of the weight of
philanthropy in our finances.

Our problem is not that we receive too many gifts, but that we don’t receive enough.

I will continue to work hard to raise more money to support our faculty and students.

I take it as one of my most important responsibilities to protect the integrity of our academic enterprise. Our donors understand that, no matter how generous they may be, they will have no authority whatsoever in our faculty selection and promotion
processes, our student admissions, or our curricular choices. If that’s not acceptable to them, we simply decline the gifts.

A spokesman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which has final say on the law school’s proposed name change, wrote in an email: “SCHEV takes seriously the views and opinions of our fellow Virginians on all sides of issues that affect higher education. Like all state agencies, SCHEV is guided by state law and policy. Our staff members are reviewing the proposal from George Mason to determine how it fits within statutes governing such matters and intend to make a recommendation at the next meeting of Council, May 16-17 at Washington & Lee University.”


Here is Cabrera’s letter in full:

Here is the grant agreement, as posted by the Faculty Senate:

Here is a redacted grant agreement, as posted by the Faculty Senate: