The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GMU faculty senate demands answers — and a delay — on renaming law school after Justice Scalia

George Mason University’s campus. (Creative Services/George Mason University)

Last week, George Mason University’s faculty senate expressed “deep concern” about recent gifts and the renaming of the law school after the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

On Wednesday, the members added to their list of concerns — including how much influence private donors might have on the public university’s academic integrity and whether its own policies might have been violated in accepting the terms of one gift — demanded answers and asked the university’s leaders to delay the law school renaming until its full implications can be understood.

George Mason’s law school to be renamed in honor of Justice Scalia

University officials announced $30 million in gifts to the law school this spring, including $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation. An anonymous donor who asked that the law school be renamed for Scalia gave $20 million. The news was celebrated by many at the Virginia university, which like most public institutions has seen public funding shrink and has become increasingly reliant on private donations, as a chance to offer scholarships and entice better students and professors.

But because Scalia was such an iconic and polarizing symbol of conservative thought and because the foundation, for many years a generous donor to universities, is connected to a family known for its support of conservative politics, the gift also stirred concerns for some that the money came with a marked, and divisive, agenda.

Justice Antonin Scalia dies at 79

For some, the gift touched on a fundamental question asked by professors across the country: Can private donors not just support, but actively direct, academia?

Are conservative donors bullying this public university? Its president says no

Democratic lawmakers wrote letters and sent a petition with more than 1,200 signatures to the governing body, which must grant final approval to the name change. A spokesman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia said this week that the panel is considering the issue and plans to make a recommendation at its May 16-17 meeting.

Va. delegate: Naming a law school for Justice Scalia is a polarizing mistake

The faculty senate approved two resolutions on Wednesday. The first raised concerns, including that “it seems problematic, given the University’s limited resources and the Law School’s declining enrollment, to commit tax payer monies to create two new centers affiliated with the Law School and to hire twelve new law professors. …

“The grant agreements link the funding of the promised scholarships to the ongoing service of the current Dean, Dr. Henry N. Butler … This constitutes a violation of longstanding practices of faculty governance. It is the responsibility of the Law School Faculty and the GMU Administration, not outside donors, to determine who is appointed and continues to serve as Dean.”

Like Scalia, the law school at George Mason U. has a maverick streak, dean says

The grant agreement seemed to give too much leverage to the donors, the resolution continued, and it seemed ill-advised to create two new centers at the law school when one already there has drawn negative media coverage and allegations of conflict of interest.

The resolution asks for a delay to address some of those concerns, directed a committee of the faculty senate to write a detailed conflict-of-interest policy for private donations, and called for a committee of the senate to approve the creation of new centers and oversee research and activities at existing ones. It passed with a 25 to 14 vote.

The other resolution asked for answers about the university’s policy on private donations and questioned whether that had been breached. “Namings associated with capital gifts will be conferred when 50% of the gift is received by Foundation,” it quoted the policy as stipulating. “The exception is endowment gifts, which can be named upon receipt of a pledge.” But the $20 million gift is to be paid in installments of up to $4 million over time, so the resolution questions whether the $10 million minimum required for the naming will not be met until May 2018 and what would happen if the donor reneged on the gift. It was passed with a voice vote.

Lloyd Cohen, a member of the faculty senate who teaches at the law school, opposed the motion.

Consider the irony of this body’s proposed resolution: In purporting to take a stand in favor of academic freedom this body would adopt a statement that constitutes one of the most egregious attacks on academic freedom not only in the history of this university but in higher education in this country.
This body is prepared to accuse the faculty and administration of the school of law of selling out its integrity, independence, and academic values for a pottage — all while hiding under the gutless guise of expressing “concerns” about public perceptions and other weasel words designed to disguise what this really is — an unprecedented assault on the academic freedom of one unit of this university by a mob of faculty from the rest of the university.
And let’s not kid ourselves — the whole world knows what is going on here. If this were a gift from George Soros to create the Harry Blackman Law School we would not be here today.
The political agenda of this body is transparent.
And it is the transparency of this political agenda to attack academic freedom cloaked in the garb of a purported defense of academic freedom that leads me to call on every Senator to think about the principle that you would be voting for today if you go along with this statement.
Indeed, if this assault is in the name of defending academic freedom, then that concept has lost all meaning.

Both resolutions will be delivered to the administration, the state council which will consider the renaming later this month, and the board of visitors, which meets Thursday.

On Wednesday evening, David Rehr, senior associate dean and professor of law, wrote in an email, “Even with this action, we are moving forward with SCHEV and expect a favorable resolution.”

Some students spoke at the meeting. Geoffrey Payne, a junior, said he was speaking for a broad coalition including women and students of color, asking for the name change to be halted. “As a queer student, I would feel less safe at Mason, because the name change would lend credibility to judicial opinions and public statements which fanned the flames of homophobia and transphobia,” he said.

He cited some, such as “Fisher v. University of Texas, where Scalia stated: ‘There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less – a slower-track school where they do well.’

“Merging our university’s legacy with that of Scalia is not only contrary to our values of diversity and accessibility, it also lends weight to opinions that uphold and extend various forms of oppression and violence.”

Georgetown professors: Naming George Mason’s law school after Scalia is fitting, for his opinions endure

George Mason spokeswoman Renell Wynn issued a statement Wednesday evening expressing thanks for the feedback from the “important voice” of the faculty senate.

It is to be expected at a university as large and diverse as Mason that there will be differing opinions about this issue. We know that some members of our community are not pleased with naming the school after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And some have raised questions about whether the donor will have undue influence. …
We all agree that building a diverse and inclusive community is critical to George Mason’s success. This gift provides $30 million for scholarships and that money will help hundreds of students attend law school – students who otherwise might not have had that chance. That is why this gift is so important to Mason, and why we believe we should continue to move forward.

Wynn said the administration strongly agrees that the university should continue to support all groups, support civil discourse “that bridges the great diversity” at Mason, and that the university “should not be aligned with any single ideological position and should be a friendly home to people who embrace diverse points of view.” Wynn also said the administration is committed to explaining the plan to fund the changes to the law school without damage to other parts of the university, and is committed to open, honest communication with all in the campus community.

Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason, responded to faculty concerns with a letter this weekend that strongly defended the university’s 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.”

He noted that the $50 million that the Charles Koch Foundation has given to the university in the past decade amounts to just 0.6 percent of the annual budget over that time. “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,” he wrote, “but that we don’t receive enough.”

Here is the full statement from Lloyd Cohen, a member of the faculty senate who teaches in the law school:

Here is Cabrera’s letter in full:

Here is one grant agreement:

Here is another agreement, redacted:

Here is the full text of the resolution the faculty senate passed last week: