George Mason’s Plans to Honor Scalia Spark Protests Over the University’s Direction

April 29, 2016

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Critics of George Mason U.’s agreement to rename its law school for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (shown in 2011) see the move as evidence that the university is being steered rightward by conservative donors.
In death the late Antonin G. Scalia has sparked the sort of controversy that annoyed him while he was alive, a campus backlash against the perceived influence of conservatives on a public university.

By agreeing to rename its law school for the U.S. Supreme Court justice at the behest of an anonymous donor of $20 million, George Mason University has inadvertently provided a flash point uniting several campus groups with varying agendas. They include student activists who have criticized their institution’s involvement with the Charles Koch Foundation, which provided an additional $10 million to the law school, as well as faculty members who accuse administrators there of giving big donors too much sway and others who have objected to Justice Scalia’s stands on social issues.

"The issue of the law school has galvanized a lot of people who are concerned about funding or are concerned about faculty governance," says Craig Willse, an assistant professor of cultural studies who has drafted and circulated a letter denouncing the renaming of the law school as "an affront to those in our community who have been the targets of Scalia’s racism, sexism, and homophobia." As of late Thursday his letter had been signed by more than 140 of the university’s faculty and staff members, as well as several alumni and former staff members.

Samantha Parsons, a senior at George Mason who is involved in a three-year-old student campaign to pressure the university to disclose more about its agreements with the Koch Foundation and other donors, said, "I have never seen as much attention and as much interest in our relations with private donors as I see now."

The strength of such opposition was evident on Wednesday, at a Faculty Senate meeting attended by student protesters opposed to the planned renaming of the law school. The Faculty Senate voted 21 to 13 in favor of a resolution expressing "deep concern" with the renaming.

Characterizing Justice Scalia as a polarizing figure who made offensive comments about women, gays and lesbians, and various minority groups, the resolution expressed concern that the renaming would reinforce "the external branding of the university as a conservative institution." It accused top George Mason administrators of failing to disclose elements of its agreement with the donors that require the university to provide funds for 12 new faculty members and additional staff, as well as support for two new academic centers, for a 10-year period.

An 'Uncollegial Act'

Lloyd Cohen, a law professor, was among the Faculty Senate members who opposed the resolution. He said that he and others on the law school’s faculty were "deeply offended" by the measure and called it "a most divisive and uncollegial act." He offered praise for Justice Scalia, and denounced the resolution’s language accusing the late justice of numerous offensive public comments as "something lifted from the curriculum of the Joseph Goebbels school of political discourse: repeat a scurrilous defamatory lie often enough, and it becomes the truth."

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Cohen called accusations of undue Koch influence on the university "complete nonsense" that betrays ignorance of academe and the tendency of donors to support scholars who are already doing work they look upon favorably. "There is absolutely no control, no conflict of interest," he said.

As reported by BuzzFeed, Ángel Cabrera, George Mason’s president, struck a fairly conciliatory tone at the meeting, assuring faculty members that the law school would maintain its academic freedom and no donors would have undue influence over hirings or other decisions there.

In an interview on Thursday, Renell Wynn, a university spokeswoman, said its administration indeed supports as "a path forward" provisions of the resolution urging officials there to emphasize their support for diversity, civil discourse, and ideological neutrality, and to make clear that the law school’s new faculty members and centers will not siphon resources from elsewhere.

The Faculty Senate plans to meet again next week and take up proposed resolution language that protests a provision in the agreement requiring the university to notify the donors if it replaces the law school’s current dean, Henry N. Butler.

That language, to be proposed either as a new Faculty Senate resolution or as amendments to the resolution passed this week, says the law school has been repeatedly accused in the news media of inappropriately engaging in conservative advocacy, mainly by offering seminars that promote the economic interests of corporations and wealthy donors. It states that such media coverage "damages the reputation of our university and higher education in general."

David L. Kuebrich, an associate professor of English and a Faculty Senate member who has been pushing other members of that body to take a strong stand against potential donor interference in academic decisions, argued on Thursday that the university needed to adopt a conflict-of-interest policy governing agreements with private donors. He stopped short of accusing academic centers there of doing anything improper, but said "an awful lot of seemingly credible outside sources are asserting that something improper is going on."

On the state level, Mr. Willse, the author of the campus letter opposed to the renaming, said he hopes to persuade the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the coordinating board for Virginia’s public colleges, to block it. State Delegate Marcus B. Simon, a Democrat, on Wednesday sent the council a letter relaying a petition, with more than 1,200 signatures, urging it to allow public comment on the renaming decision. "A law school named for Scalia is likely to be as polarizing and controversial as the man himself," the letter said.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.