University in Turmoil over Scalia Tribute and Koch Role

Nicholas Fandos, New York Times, April 28, 2016

For years, students and faculty at George Mason University paid little attention as Charles G. Koch and other conservatives helped transform their once sleepy commuter school in the suburbs of the nation’s capital into a leading producer of free-market scholarship. The effort, after all, was focused on a few specific departments like economics and law and attracted little attention outside conservative circles.

But the announcement last month that George Mason would rename its law school in honor of Justice Antonin Scalia, the longtime voice of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing who died in February, abruptly ended that indifference.

The name change–and that it was tied to a $30 million combined gift from the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous conservative donor–focused attention for the first time in a serious way on whether the administration and trustees at George Mason had allowed Virginia’s largest public university to become an ideological outpost.

The university administration insists that the answer is no. But a drumbeat of public letters, social media posts and campus debates expressing concerns about the gift suggests a vocal group of faculty, students and state legislators are not convinced.

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On Wednesday, the university’s faculty senate passed a resolution urging the board of visitors and administration to address concerns about the renaming. A more pointed resolution to delay the name change will be revisited next week, faculty members said.

University administrators say that naming the law school after Justice Scalia was meant to honor a highly influential figure in American public life and that the gift behind it will allow the school to expand. Suggestions otherwise, they say, including that the university has ceded academic control to a donor’s interests, amount to little more than politics.

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But until the March gift, longtime faculty members said, the conservative influence seemed to stop there. Now, they worry, the university has publicly linked itself to a justice whose views on affirmative action, reproductive rights and same-sex marriage are inappropriate for a university that educates more than 30,000 students from diverse backgrounds.

“To name the school after Scalia is so egregious,” said Craig Willse, a cultural studies professor at George Mason who has helped lead the opposition to the change. “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?”

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Grant agreements released by the faculty senate show that in addition to the renaming and the creation of scholarships trumpeted by the university, the gift from the Koch Foundation is contingent upon the school hiring 12 new faculty members and creating two new centers that will expand on its Law and Economics focus.

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