Truth in Labeling: The Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University

by Rich Rubenstein on April 2, 2016 · 11 comments

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TRUTH IN LABELING: THE SCALIA SCHOOL OF LAW AT GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY

Rich Rubenstein

My employer has done it again! The public university at which I am privileged to teach (and I mean that quite seriously) has accepted a large sum of money from the Koch Foundation and another Far Right donor on terms that require its first-tier law school to be renamed the Antonin Scalia School of Law.

George Mason is currently the largest academic recipient in the country of Koch brothers’ funds, which are used to finance a free-market research and lobbying institute called the Mercatus Center, an equally Hayekian economics department, something called the Institute for Humane Studies, and various other scholars and projects dedicated to the worship of unregulated capitalist markets. Now, for a bargain price of $30 million, we will have a law school to immortalize Nino Scalia.

A petition drive has begun to protest this decision, but I have to say that objecting to a perfectly accurate label seems silly even if it is well intended. For decades prior to the current naming ruckus, the law school has been a nationally known haven for legal scholars who rank property rights above other human rights, have never met a government-sponsored social welfare program that they can stomach, consider Constitutional Law a metaphysical quest for the Framers’ “original intentions,” and believe that legal policy should be based on allocative efficiency, not distributive justice.

Why protest now that this factory producing legal doctrines designed to serve the One Percent is being named for a judge who devoted his life to the same service? Where were the protestors when the law school was being transformed into a “Law and Economics” school? Truth in labeling isn’t a bad thing. It is the product that requires criticism, not the brand.

Of course, private donors have the right to support academic programs that they agree with, and academics have the right to raise funds to support their programs. In my view, two issues that ARE worth investigating and, if necessary, protesting, are these:

First, to what extent should the resources of any university – especially a public university like George Mason – be dedicated to the pursuit of private interests like those of the Brothers Koch, whose apparently sincere dedication to the values of what might be called anarcho-capitalism is entirely consistent with their ownership of the second largest private corporation in the United States, a dominant force in the “manufacturing, refining, and distribution of petroleum, chemicals, energy, fiber, intermediates and polymers, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper, chemical technology equipment, ranching, finance, commodities trading, and other ventures and investments,” according to Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, the Kochs tend to fund academic programs (like climate denial “science”) that feather their own nests.

Second, and relatedly, to what extent should agreements between the university and donors like the Kochs be held in confidence, with their provisions and understandings kept secret rather than transparently revealed? The Kochs are famous for micro-managing the projects they fund, which in the university context may mean dictating curricula, research and action projects, academic appointments, and other matters far more important, in the long run, than the name of a law school or other department. A Faculty Senate task force at George Mason is investigating the problem of private donor agreements and will report on it shortly.

The Nino Scalia School of Law? Why not, if that reflects the school’s actual thought and practice? But the Koch Brothers University at George Mason? That’s another kettle of fish altogether.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Griendling April 2, 2016 at 4:46 pm

Good points. Give them their names on a building, but let us know what else they bought.

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Rich Rubenstein April 2, 2016 at 6:48 pm

Thanks, Bob. The confidentiality of these agreements has always been a mystery to me — and the Kochs’ influence on other schools like Florida State is not reassuring.

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Jim Daniels April 2, 2016 at 4:51 pm

I agree with this entirely. Although I would amend the comment ” consider Constitutional Law a metaphysical quest for the Framers’ “original intentions,” with “unless it conflicts with their personal views.” At least it seems that way to me sometimes.

While I had known about the econ dept I wasn’t aware the Law School had been heading in the same direction, which I find very disturbing. My worry is they will move on to the History Dept. next. Seems to be a favorite of conservatives wishing to appropriate our shared history to their narrow ideology. No other reason for the popularity of David Barton.

I loved my time at GMU and hope I won’t have further reason to be disappointed.

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Rich Rubenstein April 2, 2016 at 6:46 pm

I don’t think that History is vulnerable to this sort of takeover — it’s a very fine and diverse department. Good to hear from you, Jim!

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Lester Kurtz April 2, 2016 at 10:04 pm

Thank you for reframing this news- I gasped when it was sent to me from Bangladesh by a former student. Now I see its merit and am further committed to providing a counter weight at Mason, where I was drawn by its rich tradition of conflict analysis and its excitingly diverse student body.

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Jayne Docherty April 3, 2016 at 2:30 am

It has always been a mystery to me how S-CAR coexists at GMU with the Law School and other institutes you identify here. Totally agree with you.

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Rich Rubenstein April 5, 2016 at 2:32 pm

Thanks, Jayne. Actually, there is a peculiar solution to the mystery you mention. Roger Wilkins once told me that it was the original wave of right-wing money for the Economics Dep’t, Institute for Humane Studies, and Law School from sources like the Olin and Smith Richardson foundations that inclined President George Johnson to look for some “balancing” alternatives, to avoid having Mason be typecast as Neanderthal U. We were among the beneficiaries of this — but the lust for balance appears to have worn off!

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Joel Henning April 4, 2016 at 3:31 pm

Rich,

It’s perhaps marginally better than the Clarence Thomas School of Law, but that’s a bit like choosing between Trump and Cruz. The Kochs are poster boys for the evils of massive money controlled by those willing to use it to pursue appallingly selfish interests contrary to the public interest.

I suppress bile whenever we enter the David H. Koch Theater to see the transcendent NYC Ballet Company. I attend, though I won’t stay in a Trump hotel or eat in a Trump establishment.

The only argument in favor of taking Koch lucre, a cogent one, is that it’s damn hard to raise money. I remember being in a public interest group with members opposed to taking a grant from Chrysler because they made tanks. I insisted we take it anyhow.

Joel

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Rich Rubenstein April 5, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Good to hear from you, Joel! Yes, this business of “selling” universities to private donors is troubling. I’d be somewhat less troubled if donors on the left weren’t poorer, more parsimonious, and less daring than the Kochs. At the moment, we are being drowned by right-wing money.

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Gary Emineth November 28, 2016 at 3:15 am

Rich

I couldn’t disagree with you more… why is that private citizens shouldn’t be able to use their personally earned dollars to promote their views? The university has offered people like yourself and a majority of others to do the same at tax dollars expense! America was established to guarantee that! While I have enjoyed your writings disappointed by your bias and now must read your material with a bit of suspect.

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Rich Rubenstein December 3, 2016 at 12:37 pm

I am not certain that you read the piece you are commenting on. I did not object to the Law School renaming itself in exchange for money, since Justice Scalia is a popular figure there and a university department has a right to accept private funds, so long as the donors do not control the department. I do object to a public university being taken over by a few powerful private donors. As for taxpayer dollars, my salary is paid by the State of Virginia, which gets full value for its money. I don’t understand this objection at all.

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