Fairfax, Virginia — On Wednesday afternoon, professors at George Mason University protested the recent renaming of the law school after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. At a meeting full of angry student activists, the school’s faculty senate voted 21-13 to reopen the naming process.
The vote took issue with Scalia’s “numerous public offensive comments” about black people, women, and LBGT individuals, as well as his role in “the polarized climate in this country.” The professors also opposed the $30 million in donations from the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor that came along with the renaming, money that is supposed to be used for injecting economic analyses into interpretation of pollution laws.
The tense meeting took place as dozens of student protesters crowded the front of the room holding signs protesting the school’s lack of diversity and its law school’s renaming after the conservative justice, who died in January.
The university, a publicly funded institution, had announced this renaming on March 31, first as the Antonin Scalia School of Law (ASSOL), as a result of an anonymous $20 million grant. A week later, after a few too many jokes about the acronym (which GMU president Angel Cabrera called “the worst in the school’s history”), the school tweaked the name to the Antonin Scalia Law School.
Another $10 million in grants was pledged to the renamed school from the Charles Koch Foundation, which for decades has directed funds into academia to advocate for less pollution regulation, in order to support "applying tools of economics and other social science to legal doctrine, processes, and institutions."
At the faculty meeting, the protesting professors warned that the grant obligates the university to continually support legal professors who endorse the Koch Industries’ politics, under threat of cutting off its aid.
“We really have a bad reputation for academic integrity,” said GMU professor Dave Kuebrich, a member of the faculty Senate.
GMU president Angel Cabrera assured the professors that the school would keep its “academic freedom,” saying he would inform donors if leadership at the law school changed, but “ultimately” such a decision would only be made by school officials.
Lloyd Cohen, a member of the law school faculty and a senate member, compared the professors who mounted the protest to Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels, denying that Scalia had denigrated minorities in his tenure. (In a 2015 case, Scalia famously suggested that minority students might be better off attending ”less-advanced” schools than others.)
Emails obtained by BuzzFeed News show that prior to the announcement, university administrators were largely worried about the grants preventing them from increasing tuition rates for five years, rather than the school's new acronym. There was also a proposal for a Ruth Bader Ginsburg scholarship, named after the Supreme Court Justice who was friends with Scalia, that did not go forward.
An outside expert on academic freedom, former University of Virginia president Robert O'Neil, told BuzzFeed News by email that the grants renaming the Scalia law school raise issues of whether it will be controlled by the faculty of the Koch Foundation — particularly in vesting power to hire and determine curriculum to a dean, Henry Butler, who is closely connected to the Foundation.
"Close scrutiny seems warranted if not vital," O’Neil said. "Given the Koch Foundation's historic role, bias and resources, and the ominous potential for intrusion on academic freedom, greater clarity with regard to crucial terms and mandates seems imperative.”
Wednesday's vote is not necessarily going to lead to any action, as the faculty senate has no power over the administration's decisions. They plan to meet next week to hear more protests.
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Dan Vergano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.