Mason faculty sign petition against law school name change

(Photo credit: Fourth Estate archives)

A Mason professor started a petition in early April to protest Mason’s decision to rename its law school after recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

As of Apr. 26, 140 faculty and staff members from the Mason community have signed the petition, along with 19 current students and alumni. The petition was created by Craig Willse, a professor in the Cultural Studies department at Mason.

The petition, on a website titled “No Justice for GMU,” features a brief description of why the petition was made.

“As faculty and staff of George Mason University, we denounce the renaming of our law school after Antonin Scalia. This renaming undermines our mission as a public university and tarnishes our reputation. We also recognize it as an affront to those in our community who have been the targets of Scalia’s racism, sexism, and homophobia,” the petition reads.

The law school’s name change came after Mason received an anonymous donation of $20 million and an additional $10 million from the Koch Foundation. The petition cites declining state funding to the university as a reason that Mason so readily accepted the donations.

Willse said that he made the website because he felt that it was important to voice a public “comment” arguing that the views of Scalia were not representative of the Mason community. Willse said that in his four years of teaching at Mason, he has never seen an issue against which so many people have reacted so strongly.

Willse said that the 140 signers all signed for different reasons. Some, he said, are upset by the lack of input from faculty, staff and students in the renaming; while others, according to Willse, signed because they are worried that this money and money from the Koch Foundation will change the “educational mission” of the university.

“If they don’t oppose the naming itself, they seem to at least oppose how it [the choice] was made,” Willse said.

Mason communication professor Timothy Gibson agreed, saying that the decision undermines the university’s reputation, independence and autonomy.

Willse said that he had several goals in mind when he made the petition: to make a public statement, to organize faculty and staff who were unhappy with the name change and to begin a discussion about what Scalia stood for and what the purpose of a university was.

The website features a page on Scalia and his views as well as a page about the Koch brothers. The page on the Koch brothers states that they have donated millions of dollars to higher education and that many Mason students are concerned the Koch brothers are influencing Mason’s economics curriculum as well as Mercatus Center research. The Mercatus Center is a university-based research center that seeks to “bridge the gap between academic research and public policy problems,” according to its website.

There is also a link to a petition that goes to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), which has to approve the name change. According to a statement that SCHEV made to Fox News, the council is currently reviewing the name change, but a date when the decision will be made has not yet been announced.

A faculty senate meeting also took place yesterday that put a proposal in front of university administration to stop the naming process and create steps that will allow for faculty and staff input on the name change.

Gibson said in an email that he is against the decision to rename Mason’s law school because he believes it is against the university’s values. According to Gibson, deciding to sign the petition was not a difficult choice.

“The name of the law school is not a small thing. It represents the collective identity of the faculty, students and alumni who have worked hard to build the law school over multiple decades,” Gibson said.

Another issue that both Willse and Gibson found with the renaming of the school is Scalia’s stance on affirmative action and LGBT rights.

“As a Supreme Court Justice, Scalia enacted direct harms to many in our student body, especially students of color, women, and LGBT students. To those students — and all students committed to realizing our university’s stated commitment to a diverse, accessible, and inclusive learning environment — we want to affirm publicly our commitment to fighting alongside them for a just world, beginning with a just university,” the website stated.

Willse said that by changing the name, he believes that Mason’s law school will not be able to recruit the kinds of students they want, especially African-American and LGBT students.

“I also feel that, by naming the law school after Justice Scalia, the university is undermining its commitment to diversity and the goal of creating a welcoming atmosphere on campus. … [I]t seems probable to me that naming the law school after Justice Scalia will make it more difficult for its leaders to recruit a diverse range of faculty and students, from all walks of life, who will bring multiple perspectives and points of view to the study of law,” Gibson said.

According to Willse, there are additional petitions against the renaming that have been started by current students and alumni of the law school, as well as a petition written by members of the Virginia General Assembly, who are against the renaming, addressed to SCHEV.

Willse also mentioned the original acronym of the law school, saying that he felt the school would not be able to separate itself from the publicity the acronym generated.

The law school’s original name, Antonin Scalia School of Law, was in the news recently for its acronym: ASSoL. The name was then changed to The Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

“Even if you think Scalia is a hero, and you think that this is an appropriate honor, I don’t know if the school is ever going to be able to shake the association with the acronym disaster. I think for the lifetime of the law school, as long as it is named after Scalia, it’s going to be a joke,” Willse said.