George Mason Law School’s New Moniker Raises Questions Over Academic Freedom

Plans to rename George Mason University’s School of Law — located in Arlington, Va. — for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia have proceeded despite criticism from faculty, students, and some Democratic lawmakers in Virginia concerned that the name will have long-term implications for both academic freedom and the types of students who enroll at the school.

[Above: George Mason University’s law school (photo by Ron Cogswell via Flickr)]

Those opposed to the change say that renaming the law school for Scalia will create an “ideological brand.” The justice was known for his hardline conservative views on abortion, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage and had been a guest lecturer at the law school. Many worry that Scalia’s comments regarding affirmative action.— in addition to the conservative ideologies of two major donors — will adversely affect academic freedom at the school and deter African American students from enrolling.

In March, George Mason received a combined gift of $30 million to support its School of Law, contingent upon the school’s renaming, among other terms. The donation — $20 million from an anonymous donor and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation — will fund 57 annual merit-based scholarships over five years, provide for the hiring of 12 new faculty members, and establish two new centers aligned with the school’s flagship Law and Economics Center; one center will focus on liberty and law, the other on the study of the administrative state.

George Mason President Ángel Cabrera called the gift — the largest in the university’s history — a “milestone moment.”

“These gifts will create opportunities to attract and retain the best and brightest students, deliver on our mission of inclusive excellence, and continue our goal to make Mason one of the preeminent law schools in the country,” Cabrera said in a press release.

However, not everyone at George Mason agreed with Cabrera.

“To name the school after Scalia is so egregious,” Craig Willse, a cultural studies professor at the university told The New York Times. “He was racist and homophobic. What does it mean for us to associate ourselves with a figure like that, especially when his views on education run counter to a public university?”

Soon after the announcement of the gift, the faculty senate passed a resolution calling for a delay in the renaming process to allow for more time to consider the terms put forth in the agreement between the university and the two donors. According to the agreement, the school must inform the donors if the current dean, Henry N. Butler, were to step down in the next 10 years.

Butler — who is named in the agreement as playing an integral role in furthering the school’s mission “to become a national leader in legal education” and who was the former head of the school’s Law and Economics Center — has had ties to the Charles Koch Foundation and the Koch family for many years. Additionally, Charles Koch has donated to the Law and Economics Center in the past and sits on the boards of George Mason’s free-market-oriented Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies.

The inclusion of such terms as part of donation agreements is not an unusual move for the foundation, which in the past required that it have a say in hiring decisions at Florida State University, an institution that received millions in funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. But John Hardin, the foundation’s director of university relations, told The New York Times that faculty concerns over Koch’s influence at George Mason are unfounded.

“We want to ensure that the school retains all authority in determining who the faculty are going to be, what questions they are pursuing, [and] what conclusions they arrive at,” Hardin said.

In fact, the agreement stresses the importance of academic freedom.

“Consistent with the donor’s principles of supporting a diversity of ideas in higher education,” it reads, “the donor’s grant is intended to help promote a republic of science at the university and the school where ideas can be exchanged freely and useful knowledge will benefit the well-being of individuals and society.”

Despite opposition, in May, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia voted unanimously to allow the George Mason University board of visitors to decide the matter. Because the board had approved the provisions of the donation in March, that decision stands. The school will be officially renamed the Antonin Scalia Law School July 1.