Friday, May 27, 2016

What's in a name?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. 
 ~Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

The Board of Visitors at George Mason University’s recently sold the naming rights to the University’s law school to Charles Koch and an anonymous friend in exchange for a series of annual donations totaling $30 million over 5 years. The donors chose the name the Antonin Scalia School of Law, then quickly changed that to the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

When the announcement was first revealed around April 1 of this year, I organized a petition drive and have been an outspoken critic of the University’s decision, along with a number of other local area legislators. I’ve written an Op-Ed for the Washington Post, co-authored a letter to State Council on Higher Education in Virginia, and made the trip to Lexington, Virginia for the Council’s May meetings to testify at the Academic Affairs Committee and the full Council about my concerns.

I did all this under the belief that SCHEV had the final say in the re-naming of the law school.

Although supporters of the name change have questioned my motives and called me a knee-jerk liberal, my motivation for championing this fight was and remains a genuine concern for the reputation of the law school, the university, and the Commonwealth.

I continue to be concerned that, in exchange for this $30 million purchase price, the school has done irreparable harm to its reputation that will result in declining enrollment, forcing them to become less selective, which will lead to declining school rankings which will only reinforce this downward spiral.

The grant agreement leaked online shows that, in addition to renaming the law school, GMU must hire twelve additional faculty members and create two new centers expanding its law and economic focus. They must reapply for the grant every year, and the Koch Foundation must be notified immediately if Dr. Henry Butler steps down or is removed as dean of the law school.
To SCHEV or Not to SCHEV?

In spite of all of this, SCHEV staff, based on advice they received from the Attorney General’s office, decided this week that the name change was honorific and therefore would not require their approval.

According to the SCHEV staff’s initial recommendation, they did have a role ensure that new instructional units are implemented appropriately relative to the inherent soundness of academic and fiscal commitments involved.

The law school industry, such as it is, is in a crisis. Applications to law school have decreased some 50% since their peak about a decade ago. The nation’s elite law schools are reducing class size, and not growing, in response to the shortage of applicants. In order to grow, the law school to the size it would need to be to sustain the new programs it is required to create under this contract to rename the school, particularly given the number of high quality students who are likely to be dissuaded from applying because of the name, GMU will have to accept students with lower LSATs and grades. This once again begs the questions of fiscal soundness of the University’s plan going forward.
Money & Influence

Virginia taxpayers contribute ten times more in each biennial budget than this gift would account for. These grant agreements would give the donors, or purchasers of the naming rights, outsized and inappropriate influence over the direction and decision making at the law school.

Dr. Cabrera has said at various times that the academic freedom of the law school and of the University is not at risk, as the purchaser price amounts to mere 0.6% of the Schools budget. At the same time, University and Law School officials would ask how such a large and significant investment in the law school could be refused.

Whether the gift is too big to come without strings that affect the Law School’s academic freedom, or so small that it really doesn’t make a difference, we should feel comfortable that it is in our best interest to say no to the offer to purchase the law school at George Mason University.
Moving Forward

At this point there don't seem to be many options under existing law to prevent the name change from going forward. However, there may be legislative options to clarify SCHEV's role in this process and make certain there is a process to prevent large donors from using our public colleges and universities as a platform for their personal agendas. So, while it may be too late to for this law school, there is an opportunity to take preventive action to protect the integrity, fiscal soundness, and overall perception of the rest of Virginia's higher education system.