Meanwhile at GMU… a Battle over Scalia’s Name and Legacy

GMU President Angel Cabrera. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

GMU President Angel Cabrera. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

by James A. Bacon

There are only a few prestigious outposts of free-market thought in the world of higher education. The Hoover Institution at Stanford comes to mind, as does the University of Chicago School of Economics. Then there are two gems at George Mason University — the Mercatus Center and the George Mason School of Law.

Mercatus scholars opine on economic issues with an emphasis on fiscal conservatism and free-markets, while the School of Law is renowned as a center of the discipline of “law and economics,” which applies microeconomic theory to the analysis of the law. Mercatus has come under scrutiny for its support by free-market industrialist Charles Koch, the very mention of whose name sends progressives into paroxysms but until recently, the school of law had escaped vilification. But that’s all changed since $30 million in donations from the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor would rename the law school in honor of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Various schools, centers and institutes in higher education across the country are named in honor of liberal, progressive and Democratic icons, but the thought that a single law school being named after a conservative paragon is too much for some to bear. Last week, GMU’s faculty senate passed a resolution expressing “deep concern” about the gifts and the renaming of the school in honor of Scalia.

Faculty members objected to memorializing a Supreme Court Justice who contributed to the “polarized climate in this country that runs counter to the values of a university that celebrates civil discourse” and worried about external branding of the university “as a conservative institution.”

Furthermore, the faculty senate said the administration had failed to disclose the terms of the gifts that would provide funding for 12 new faculty, additional staff and support for two new centers for a ten-year period, and wondered what long-term liability the university might incur from these new commitments.

The controversy has gotten considerable press in the Washington area. Some were quick to play the race card. Washingtonian magazine, for instance, gave prominent attention to the remarks of the president of GMU’s Black Law Student Association, who called Scalia “a borderline racist who’s made terrible comments” referring to affirmative action. Such an action, she said, would only contribute to a feeling of “isolation” in a student body that’s only 4% black.

But GMU President Angel Cabrera stood firm in a letter responding to the faculty:

Agreement with his views is, however, not the reason why we are renaming the law school for Justice Scalia. We are not endorsing his opinions on any specific issue. We are recognizing a man who served our country at the highest level of government for 30 years and who many experts of diverse ideological persuasions—from faculty colleagues in our law school, to his peers on the Supreme Court, to the president of the United States—consider to have been a great jurist who had a profound impact in the legal field.

Earlier this year, Cabrera noted, GMU had been criticized for “opinions expressed by some of our faculty in the area of climate change prevention.” Some colleagues suggested that he publicly condemn those views and distance the university from them. “My position then was clear and has not changed: we must ensure that George Mason University remains an example of diversity of thought.”

(Cabrera was referring, of course, to the criticism of Jagadish Shukla, the climatologist who signed a letter urging the Obama administration to criminally prosecute Exxon-Mobil under the federal racketeering act for misrepresenting what it knew about climate change. I can’t think of the last time a GMU law school faculty member recommended criminal prosecution of an ideological foe. Shukla also, as it happens, came under scrutiny for doubling his university compensation by paying himself from his federal grant money, not to mention putting his wife on his foundation payroll.)

As for GMU taking $50 million from the Koch Foundation over the past decade, it is “farfetched,” Cabrera said, to suggest that such gifts could shape the ideology of the largest public research university in Virginia.

“I want to emphasize that our commitment to diversity and inclusion will not waver,” he said. On the contrary, the $30 million gift will make scholarships available to “help attract diverse students to the law school.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here is one more example of leftists trying to squelch conservative thought on campus. Thirty-eight percent of all Americans may self-identify as conservative, more than the 24% who self-identify as liberal, but liberals and progressives are so cocooned with like-minded brethren that conservative thought seems to them not merely misguided or wrong but grotesque and offensive — indeed, so offensive as to be run off campus.

I have criticized GMU for the way the university has seemingly swept the Shukla controversy under the rug, but I have to give credit to Cabrera for his cajones this time. The Washington media mostly ignored the Shukla story, but the Scalia story has generated massive publicity. Cabrera’s goal is building the institution. If that means welcoming climatologist Shukla and his Institute for Global Environment and Society from the University of Maryland (an effort that preceded Cabrera’s tenure), then OK. If it means accepting gifts from Charles Koch to endow chairs for the law school, then he’s OK with that as well.

I would agree with the faculty senate on one thing, remarkably enough: There should be transparency to these mega-gifts. If the donors attach strings, the university community should know what they are. Also, it is a legitimate question to ask if the $30 million gift could create long-term financial obligations for the commonwealth. Of course, that transparency applies to all mega-gifts, not just those donated by the Koch Foundation.

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19 responses to “Meanwhile at GMU… a Battle over Scalia’s Name and Legacy

  1. The irony here being that Scalia would never, ever, ever, not-in-a-million-years hire a grad of GMU law to clerk for him.

  2. George Mason University repeatedly claims to be Virginia biggest research university. True? How So?

  3. Maybe if Jim got out of his basement office once and a while, he might notice the massive changes going on. While he’s complaining that “conservatives” are (boo-hoo) having trouble getting a school named for Scalia, Donald Trump is now all but the GOP candidate. Even Charles Koch doesn’t like him. What to do?

    And Jim, I don’t know how long you have been in your basement, but women now have the right to vote.

  4. Many universities with also-ran reputations can have prestigious gems hidden within. For example, Virginia Commonwealth University has the No. 1 sculpture program of any public university in the country (and its arts school is tied for No. 2). So, there is nothing implausible about saying that Mercatus is a prestigious center of free-market, fiscal-conservative thinking embedded within a larger institution of less national renown.

    • I would enlarge that observation to assert that one great teacher within a second, third, or fourth tier university can make a huge and positive different in the lives of many of his or her students. And that, in fact, the wonderfully powerful and long lasting influence of these great teachers in otherwise middling institutions goes on every day of the year, and thus radiates throughout America for many years, spreading untold benefits for generations.

      And that, unfortunately, the reverse happens: namely that increasingly large numbers of professors in so called highly “prestigious” universities today and every day now ruin the minds and futures of ever larger numbers of their students. Reaping pernicious consequences throughout the nation for generations, as plainly evident today. We reap what they sow.

      On a related point I suspect that today George Mason University suffers from the same affliction that large numbers of Fairfax County leaders suffer from, and that their mutual contagion is growing to monumental proportion by reason of their close proximity to one another, and their collective proximity to a corrupt Federal Government and its enablers.

      • Agreed, RF. Regarding, “one great teacher within a second, third, or fourth tier university can make a huge and positive different in the lives of many of his or her students,” I suspect the difference made is all the greater because the individual student has greater access to that prof. in that small institution, and perhaps because there’s less competition for the student’s attention. And regarding, “increasingly large numbers of professors in so called highly “prestigious” universities today and every day now ruin[ing] the minds and futures of ever larger numbers of their students,” yes, their collective interaction can result in a liberal hive mind mentality that breeds a “Feel the Bern” approach to politics; but then, when it comes to George Mason, there is a strong “Make America Great Again” strain as well (complete with the rigorous logical thinking that so characterizes The Donald phenomenon).

        • I agree Acbar. In fact, I fear The Donald’s Mussolini influence as much if not more than that of the current Administration in DC.

  5. ” Mason moved into the highest research ranking on Feb. 1, based on a review of its 2013-2014 data that was performed by the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University Schools of Education.
    The review showed that Mason’s total research expenditures grew from $77 million in 2008-09 to $99 million in 2013-14. The increase was driven by growth in research expenditures in science and engineering, which doubled during that period. The university also increased the number of doctoral degrees it conferred by 27 percent in that same period.
    By earning the highest classification, Mason – the largest public research university in Virginia – joins an elite group of 115 institutions known for performing research at the highest level.”

    odd….. who knew?

    • Larry, on another subject — how to post a personal-avatar photo: while in BR, click on the speedometer symbol (“Dashboard”) in the black band at the top of this screen; a dropdown menu in the left margin will appear, select “Profile”. Scroll down past “Biographical Info” to “Profile Picture.” This will be blank with the instruction, “You can change your profile picture on Gravatar.” The word Gravatar is a link; click on it and go to Gravatar.com through this link. If you are not already registered in Gravatar (it’s an entirely separate registration from both BR and WordPress), do so at this time; once you are registered, don’t go to “Profile” but to “My Gravatars” > “1. Pick email to modify” > “2. Pick new image” (this must be an image in a file on your computer or on gdrive etc.). Strangely, after all this the picture you select in Gravatar does not immediately appear in your BR profile, but it does appear when you post comments.

  6. This announcement like so much pablum spun out as confection daily these days tells us little more than nothing insofar as substance is concerned.

  7. What is the essence of Law and Science, their study and practice, if it is not skepticism and debate? What does this controversy at the GMU law school tell us about the health of skepticism and debate there at the law school?

    What does the controversy over Jagadish Shukla and the above referenced letter on climate change opinions and findings tell us about the health of skepticism and debate of science research at GMU?

    I fear GMU President Cabrera will find his stance increasingly difficult to maintain, given the Federal Government’s current onslaught against the independence of our nation’s colleges and universities, most particularly against what is now and can in the future be thought and taught there.

  8. Reed, thanks for your reasoned cogent comments. It’s good someone can offset some of the snide tripe above.

  9. Expanding upon Reed and Acbar comments above, one of GMU’s selling points to undergraduates is that students get more one-on-one time with professors (rather than graduate students) that at other major research universities. Supposedly, GMU has smaller class sizes and professors have longer office hours. That reflects the fact that GMU does less research than UVA, Tech or VCU. It will be interesting to see if the increased emphasis on research changes the student-professor relationship.

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