NAMING A law school after an influential Supreme Court justice is not without precedent. George Mason University certainly has the right — and clearly the incentive in the way of $30 million — to rechristen its law school in honor of the late justice Antonin Scalia. But university officials aren’t fooling anyone if they contend that naming the school after such a polarizing figure doesn’t give it an ideological brand.
In March, less than two months after Scalia’s death, the university announced the name change and news of a combined gift of $10 million from the foundation of conservative billionaire activist Charles Koch and a $20 million pledge from an anonymous donor who made the gift contingent on the name change. There was immediate controversy, with opponents characterizing Scalia’s views on race, gender and sexual orientation as unfit for association with a diverse public university.
The Faculty Senate this week passed a nonbinding but symbolically significant resolution calling upon the administration to delay the name change until the issue can be further studied. Among the faculty concerns are whether the gifts come with strings that would give the donors undue influence over academic direction. Administration officials say the fears are unfounded. But then why the curious provision in the agreement describing the law school’s dean as critical and requiring the donors to be notified of any change in leadership? And who is the donor insisting on anonymity, and why?
The $30 million is the largest financial contribution to the law school in its history, and the good that money could do in the way of new scholarships and strengthened programs should not be sniffed at, especially at a time of shrinking public support. Defenders of the name change, still subject to approval from Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education, are not wrong in pointing out a strain of hypocrisy in the debate, it being unlikely the liberal-leaning higher education community would have a problem if a George Soros were creating a Harry A. Blackmun School of Law. Academic freedom, after all, is about diversity of opinion.
The law school at George Mason is fairly unusual in having a libertarian- and conservative-leaning faculty and student body, and so it’s not illogical that it would be sought out to bear the name of a towering conservative hero. But adopting Scalia’s name makes a statement about the school that could have long-term implications for the type of students who apply and whether alumni decide to give. Whether that’s in the public university’s best interest is a question worthy of more debate, something that Scalia likely would have relished.