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.