The Scalia School of Law at George Mason University has significant disadvantages in the scrabbling for prestige among American law schools. Founded in 1979, it’s a relatively young institution, which means graduates have had less time to accumulate wealth, donate, and leave bequests than their counterparts at older institutions have done. As a result, the school’s endowment is a negligible $4.4 million. Scalia also is part of a public institution that for many years treated it as a cash cow to be milked rather than an asset to be invested in.
Yet Scalia fares well in rankings of law school prestige — having made it into the Top 50 among 200 law schools every year over the past 18 years and having scored 41st in the most recent US News & World-Report ranking. In a 2015 ranking of scholarly impact based upon the number of law journal citations by its faculty, Scalia did even better: It scored 21st.
One reason that Scalia “punches above its weight,” suggests Dean Henry Butler, is the intellectual diversity of its faculty. “Conservatives and libertarians are under-valued in the academic marketplace,” he says. “That allows us to recruit a stronger faculty.”
Lawyers tend to be more liberal than the general population, and law school professors more liberal than practicing lawyers. A 2017 research working paper, “The Legal Academy’s Ideological Conformity” found that only 15% of law school professors are politically conservative compared to 35% for lawyers as a whole.
Scalia is a marked exception to the national norm. Of the 49 highest-ranked laws schools in the country, Scalia had the largest percentage of conservative professors, roughly 80%. Only two other law schools, Brigham Young University and Pepperdine, had majority-conservative faculties.
Not surprisingly, the conservative faculty of GMU’s law school, named after deceased conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has made it a target of the left. A group called UnKoch My Campus used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain emails and copies of gift agreements purporting to show undue influence by the conservative/libertarian Charles Koch Foundation and the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy over the appointment of faculty members and creation of programs. The allegations were repeated by the New York Times and Washington Post. GMU President Angel Cabrera has ordered an inquiry into the terms of the gifts, but he has described only two such deals as “problematic” and noted that both have expired.
UnKoch My Campus expressed shock — shock! — at evidence it uncovered showing that Dean Butler had communicated extensively with the wealthy conservative donors. Butler offers no apologies. As dean of the law school, he is the fund-raiser in chief, which makes him the schmoozer in chief. He is proud of the school’s success in funding programs that elevate its profile in the legal community.
I had the opportunity to visit Butler earlier this month. School was out for the summer, and the dean greeted me clad in shorts, sockless, tassled loafers, and an untucked button-down shirt. He came across as affable, enthusiastic, and passionate — but not dogmatic — about conservative causes. While Scalia’s law professors are mostly conservative, he noted that there are “a couple of Democrats” on the faculty. Perhaps more importantly, students feel free to express liberal views. “We don’t muzzle anybody here.”
Unsurprisingly for a free-market conservative, Butler touts the “marketplace of ideas,” and he sees the Scalia School playing an important role in that marketplace.
Founded in 1979, the law school entered its modern incarnation in 1986 when Henry G. Manne became dean at the recommendation of GMU’s two Nobel Prize winners, James M. Buchanan and Vernon Smith. Manne was a proponent of the Law and Economics school of thought pioneered by economist Ronald Coase and legal scholar Richard Posner. The breakthrough idea was that the discipline of economics could provide insights into not only areas of business law such as antitrust compliance but torts, property, contracts, domestic relations, procedure, even constitutional law.
In a 1994 essay Manne recounted how Law and Economics took root at GMU:
Much of the credit for what occurred at GMU belongs to the University President, Dr. George W. Johnson. He repeatedly said that he did not want “just another good law school.” Rather, consistent with his entire style at this new, innovative and burgeoning university, he wanted to be at the cutting edge, to set new models for other universities, and to take chances in order to move George Mason’s reputation along in a hurry. When he heard in some detail my idea for a law school, he is reported to have said to an associate, “whether Henry Manne comes here or not, that is the kind of law school we want.”
A student of Manne’s, Butler has built on the Law and Economics foundation. He has fought to keep a bigger share of the law school’s tuition revenue for the law school itself. He has raised money for massive renovations of the Arlington campus, including the digitization of much of the law library to replace oppressive stacks of books with light-imbued study and meeting space. He orchestrated the school’s name change to honor Scalia, a leading light of conservative legal thought. And he has increased outside fund raising. Most of the money goes to support six centers and institutes. Continue reading