George Mason University is downplaying a backlash to its decision to rechristen its law school after the late Justice Antonin Scalia, saying a petition against the renaming drew signatures from less than eight percent of the faculty.
“We respect other professors point of view, but it’s less than (eight percent) of the academic faculty at George Mason University,” said David Rehr, senior associate dean of the school, in an interview on Friday. “We are hearing from all sides — for every person who seems to not like their perception of Scalia’s rulings, we hear from alumni and students who say this is great for the school.”
Rehr noted that there are 1,819 total faculty members at George Mason University, excluding adjuncts, and 140 faculty and staff signed a petition earlier this month to object to the university changing its law school name to the Antonin Scalia School of Law. He speculated that some objectors have a self-interest, from professors who want media attention to lawmakers scoring political points.
“I think that’s a little tragic,” said Rehr.
The controversy started after George Mason announced on March 31 that it would rename its law school as the Antonin Scalia School of Law after the university’s dean secured $30 million in pledged donations: $10 million from the Koch Foundation, and another $20 million from an anonymous donor that conditioned the gift on the law school being named after Scalia.
The money is set to go toward three scholarship funds and will help the school recruit higher quality students and bump its notch in the influential U.S. News and World rankings, George Mason dean Henry Butler told Big Law Business in March.
Since that time, faculty and staff on campus have organized a petition against the name change, counting 140 signatures. Virginia state lawmaker Marcus Simon also sent a petition with more than 1,200 signatures to the council tasked with approving the Antonin Scalia School of Law.
“This renaming undermines our mission as a public university and tarnishes our reputation,” said the petition signed by George Mason professors, dated April 7. “We also recognize it as an affront to those in our community who have been the targets of Scalia’s racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
This week, the faculty senate at George Mason expressed “deep concerns” with the terms of the $30 million gift agreements to support the school.
In a written document, the senate found “aspects” of the gifts “to be problematic” including “the celebration of a Supreme Court Justice who made numerous public offensive comments about various groups — including people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals — which this university has appropriately gone to some lengths to embrace as valued parts of the university community.”
According to the document, faculty members also took issue with school officials failing to disclose the terms of the gifts that require the university to provide funding for 12 new faculty, additional staff, and support for two new centers for a 10-year period.
The document was co-authored by George Mason professors Suzanne Slayden and Alan Abramson. Slayden declined comment while Abramson did not respond to a request for comment.
Lloyd Cohen, a professor on campus who supports the name change, said that the concern around financial transparency is misplaced. Given the school’s limited alumni network, since it was only founded in 1957, he said the donation is necessary.
“You have to be aware of how this works,” said Cohen. “Law schools and universities get money by selling names.”
Cohen pointed to Northwestern’s recent $100 million gift from J.B. and M.K. Pritzker to rename its law school as the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.
“Nothing against the Pritzkers, and God bless, I wish they gave us the $100 million instead of Northwestern, but most often the school gets named after someone who puts up the money who is not involved in or an intellectual to the law community,” said Cohen. “Antonin Scalia is arguably one of the seven or eight more distinguished justices in the U.S. Supreme Court. A great writer, a clear thinker.”
Rehr, the senior associate dean, also defended the school’s decision to name its law school after Scalia, saying that it was largely driven by economic reasons and will benefit the school’s standing, driving additional financial contributions.
Noting that he “didn’t agree with all of (Scalia’s) rulings,” Rehr positioned the decision as a long term play.
“George Mason is — I don’t want to say a sleepy school — but if you say, ‘Name the first five law schools that you can think of, you don’t go, George Mason.’… What you need to think about is not the quality and reputation of your law school today, but what it will be five to ten years from now. And I thoroughly believe that the Antonin Scalia School of Law, once it’s approved, will be one of the top law schools in the country.”
He added: “It’s like a rolling stone, once it gains momentum… if you’re a successful business person, they’ll see us and say, ‘They are teaching law and economics. That is what we do. We need to give them contributions.'”
Rehr estimated that The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia would make its decision on whether to approve the Antonin Scalia School of Law name by the end of May.