Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia talks with a crowd gathered outside the gym after the graduation ceremony at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md, on June 4, 2015. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Virginia’s largest public university is now officially home to the Antonin Scalia Law School, a name change that generated intense controversy when it was first announced earlier this spring.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution that said that, according to legal advice, the name change did not require the council’s approval — that it was already enacted.

The name change was as polarizing as Scalia himself was. The late justice, who died in February, was an icon whose incisive opinions inspired conservatives and infuriated liberals, which left many people with strong opinions about whether he should be honored and whether he was a fitting symbol for a public university’s law school.

An anonymous donor asked for the name as a condition of a $20 million gift to the law school, which came with a $10 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation. That prompted delight from some at the prospect of scholarships, new centers and new faculty to raise the school’s profile; it drew dismay from those who associate the Koch family name with generous funding of conservative causes and asked whether the school’s academic freedom would be compromised by private money.

Many worked to send a strong message to the state council about the name: Democratic lawmakers wrote letters of concern, people signed petitions, the faculty senate at George Mason passed resolutions asking for a delay. Meanwhile, the law school’s faculty voted strongly in favor of the name change, school officials defended the terms of the gift agreements, law professors wrote op-eds, and many testified in favor at the state council’s meetings Monday and Tuesday.

On Monday, some were surprised to find that the council would consider a resolution that reflected advice from the attorney general’s office.


The Academic Affairs Committee of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia voted Monday to send this resolution to the full council for a vote. (SCHEV)

Neomi Rao, an associate professor at the law school, welcomed the decision. “It’s going to be a game-changing donation and gift for the George Mason law school,” she said by phone Tuesday. “And it’s going to be instrumental in bringing in new students — students who otherwise couldn’t afford a legal education. It will help build out our faculty and improve the quality and reach of the law school.”

She told the council earlier: “Naming the law school after Justice Scalia is a fitting tribute to an exceptional jurist who has deeply impacted the way we think about the law. His academic work and judicial decisions explained why judges should focus on the text of the laws the Congress passed; and why judges should try to ascertain the original meaning of the Constitution.” She said the core of a legal education is, “digging deep into different forms of legal reasoning, identifying the assumptions behind an argument, and the best and worst that can be said of a particular perspective.

“For those who have not studied law — this can look as though all law is politics. But for the finest students and practitioners of law, this dialectic process is part of intellectual inquiry. Two former solicitor generals, one serving President Clinton the other President George W. Bush, wrote that, while they often disagree, ‘we are united in our respect for Scalia, a man who cared deeply about the law and who always sought to promote open, vigorous, diverse and respectful debate.’ ”

Craig Willse, an assistant professor of cultural studies at George Mason who has opposed the name change said, “Scalia’s views, particularly his views on higher education, are at odds with the mission of a public university. His comments that African-American students might do better in slower-track schools than at the University of Texas,” comments made in the course of oral arguments in an affirmative-action case this winter, “run counter to George Mason University’s stated commitment to creating a diverse, inclusive learning environment.” He said there are many other opinions Scalia has expressed which are at odds with most members of the campus community, but the recent question Scalia posed about race, “that alone is enough to refuse association with Scalia.”

Willse said he was disappointed by the decision, but encouraged by the way the name change had galvanized people on campus to work together for social justice causes, governance issues and donor influence. The challenge now, he said, will be for others in the community to ensure it’s a diverse and welcoming place.

He also added that the administration had presented this as something welcomed by the law school and opposed by outsiders, but that it affects the entire university, may deter African-American students in particular from attending, and that there is considerable dissent among law students and alumni.

David Rehr, senior associate dean and professor of law, said in a statement:

“We are pleased with the unanimous consent from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).  The generous major gifts to George Mason University will help position us prominently among leading law schools and open many doors for future students through scholarships and other major academic objectives.  We thank the many scholars, public officials and legal experts from across the ideological spectrum who have lent their name in support of the Antonin Scalia Law School.”

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) said after the vote: “I’m a little disappointed that at sort of the 11th hour the legal staff decided this really wasn’t their decision to make. I think it does create an issue for those of us in the legislature to look at going forward: What process do we want to have for things like anonymous grants? How do we decide who gets to choose the names of our law schools and universities?

“Based on this analysis, what’s to stop the University of Virginia from calling itself the Coca-Cola University at Charlottesville?

“I know money’s tight, but we can’t let money talk completely when it comes to our public institutions.”