Credit Chip Somodevilla
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the 40th anniversary luncheon for the Legal Services Corporation in Washington in September 2014. Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
WASHINGTON — 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.
“Many of us have been watching this happening for a long time,” said Bethany Letiecq, a professor of human development and family science, “but this just renews interest in the bigger picture, which is the Kochs’ influence in higher education and the decreasing influence of the faculty over decision making.”
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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“You need to really cut to the chase and ask: Is the naming of the Scalia Law School a signal to students that you have to have a particular viewpoint to attend,” said David K. Rehr, the law school’s senior associate dean. “I think emphatically and overwhelmingly the answer is no.”
But the debate has raised questions about how, as the university’s growth has outpaced the state of Virginia’s support for it, conservative donors have become increasingly important.
“Public universities are just desperate for money. And if it’s not coming from the state, it has to come from some place,” said David A. Kravitz, a professor of management who sits on the faculty senate. “What’s left is people like the Koch brothers and others, and quite often they provide money that goes toward things that support their interests.”
Over the course of nearly three decades, Mr. Koch, the billionaire industrialist who has pumped millions into conservative causes, and foundations affiliated with him have put a distinct imprint on key segments of the university. Those foundations have given more than $50 million over the past decade, most of it funneled to pet initiatives affiliated with the university, like the Mercatus Center, an economic think tank that churns out libertarian policy research, and the Institute for Humane Studies, which promotes libertarian philosophy. Mr. Koch sits on the boards of both.
Mr. Koch’s foundation has also given generously to the Law and Economics Center, the law school’s flagship program, which emphasizes the economic impact of the law. The school’s dean, Henry N. Butler, used to run the center and has had close ties to the family for decades.
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?”
Even at the law school, where the faculty’s ideology and curriculum are widely known, some said the renaming had gone too far.
“I think it’s a really important distinction to make that having conservative faculty and learning about Antonin Scalia and his opinions is an important part of the education here,” said Rebecca Bucchieri, a 2015 graduate of the law school. “But branding the entire school and student body with his views is another thing.”
Ms. Bucchieri, who works for a reproductive rights nonprofit, helped organize a letter from more than 275 law students and alumni opposing the change.
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.
The gift, which will be paid out over several years based on the university carrying out the agreement, also requires that the school “retain focus” on Law and Economics and stipulates that the foundation be notified immediately should Mr. Butler step down.
Those provisions have led to concerns from some faculty members that big donors like Mr. Koch are slowly encroaching on the university’s academic independence.
In their view, they have good reason to be wary. The Charles Koch Foundation usually insists on some say in how its money is used, going as far as asking for the right to have a committee it appointed sign off on hires to a new economics program it funded in 2011 at Florida State University.
David L. Kuebrich, an English professor who is preparing a faculty senate task force report on private donor influence on campus, said there is no need for that kind of explicit direction at George Mason.
“Both the funders and the faculty and staff at these centers share the same libertarian outlook and goals, so they work together well,” said Mr. Kuebrich, who stressed he was not speaking for the task force. “Detailed agreements are likely unnecessary.
The foundation maintains that its gifts do not encroach on academic independence. John Hardin, the foundation’s director of university relations, said that it makes grants based on specific proposals from schools like George Mason. As long as the school is carrying out the agreed-upon vision, the foundation largely stands back, he said.
“We want to ensure that the school retains all authority in determining who the faculty are going to be, what questions they are pursuing, what conclusions they arrive at,” Mr. Hardin said.
With the university’s leadership unlikely to reverse course and Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, unwilling to intervene, according to a spokesman, opponents of the change have rested their hopes on the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, a board appointed by the governor that must approve the renaming.
The staff of the board, which has not blocked a name change of this sort in recent memory, is reviewing George Mason’s proposal.