FROM: Ángel Cabrera
TO: Members of the Faculty Senate
RE: Law School Naming Gift Resolution
DATE: April 29, 2016
This past Wednesday I was asked by the Faculty Senate to share my thoughts on the recent naming gift to the law school and to respond to a number of specific concerns included in a draft resolution that was later adopted. The various concerns covered three topics: the appropriateness of naming a school after a Supreme Court Justice whose opinions some consider objectionable and polarizing, the risk of undue influence by a donor in the academic affairs of the university, and the economic implications of the gift for the university.
Let me offer some thoughts on each of these subjects.
In a large and proudly diverse university like ours, it is not surprising that the opinions of an influential individual like the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would generate a wide variety of reactions. I acknowledge and respect the fact that some of you find some of his opinions objectionable and even personally offensive.
Agreement with his views is, however, not the reason why we are renaming the law school for Justice Scalia. We are not endorsing his opinions on any specific issue. We are recognizing a man who served our country at the highest level of government for 30 years and who many experts of diverse ideological persuasions—from faculty colleagues in our law school, to his peers on the Supreme Court, to the president of the United States—consider to have been a great jurist who had a profound impact in the legal field.
Earlier this year we were the target of intense criticism for opinions expressed by some of our faculty in the area of climate change prevention. Some colleagues at the time suggested that I publicly condemn those views and distance the university from them. My position then was clear and has not changed: we must ensure that George Mason University remains an example of diversity of thought, a place where multiple perspectives can be dissected, confronted, and debated for the benefit and progress of society at large. Rejecting a major naming gift in honor of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on the basis that some of us disagree with some of his opinions would be inconsistent with our values of diversity and freedom of thought.
As per the perception that one donor may unduly influence the academic life of this university, let me offer some context. Indeed, with the continuous decline in public funding, philanthropy plays an increasingly important role for public universities, as it has always been for private ones. However, compared to our research university peers, philanthropy is still a very small percentage of our budget. In fiscal year 2017, all forms of philanthropy will account for almost 5 percent of our $920 million budget. Four years ago when I arrived at Mason, philanthropy provided 3 percent of our $730 million budget.
In a front-page story on Friday, April 29, the New York Times valued the gifts from one donor, the Charles Koch Foundation, to Mason over the last decade at $50 million. To put things in perspective, that would amount to about 0.6 percent of our average annual budget over this period. The suggestion that gifts of this magnitude can shape the ideology of the largest public research university in Virginia is farfetched to say the least.
The New York Times credits Charles Koch with having helped transform a “once sleepy commuter school […] into a leading producer of free-market scholarship.” Sleepy is not the first word that comes to mind to describe an economics department that delivered one Nobel Prize winner in 1986 and a second one in 2002. It seems fairer to claim that it was our academic strength in economics that attracted the support of individual donors and foundations. I can only hope that our strengths in other areas—from public policy to climate change and conservation, digital humanities, psychology, cybersecurity or molecular biology to mention a few—will one day attract a similar level of private support.
I am proud that we are making great progress in increasing philanthropic support to the university and I am grateful to our donors for believing in us—including the Charles Koch Foundation, one of our most consistent and generous donors. But we are still far from the levels of many of our peer institutions in terms of the weight of philanthropy in our finances. Our problem is not that we receive too many gifts, but that we don’t receive enough. I will continue to work hard to raise more money to support our faculty and students.
I take it as one of my most important responsibilities to protect the integrity of our academic enterprise. Our donors understand that, no matter how generous they may be, they will have no authority whatsoever in our faculty selection and promotion processes, our student admissions, or our curricular choices. If that’s not acceptable to them, we simply decline the gifts.
Finally, let me clarify the structure of the $30 million gift to the law school. The entire gift will fund scholarships. The tuition revenue generated by those scholarships will provide additional resources to the school to hire new faculty, create new centers, and strengthen existing programs. The new faculty positions will be funded with those revenues. In fact, this is our plan as presented to the donors, not the other way around. The new resources will help us raise the stature of the school and consolidate its position among the leading law schools in the country. Our expectation is that the boost of resources will have lasting effects in driving future student demand beyond the duration of the gift.
I want to emphasize that our commitment to diversity and inclusion will not waver. On the contrary, the new gift offers significant resources to further pursue our goals. The Board of Visitors’ resolution approving of the name requires that we create a new scholarship program that will help attract diverse students to the law school. The Board also requested the creation of a new committee, including two board members, to monitor the improvements of student and faculty diversity in the law school. There is a lot more we can do for diversity and inclusion with the scholarships and the new faculty positions than without them.
I extend my congratulations to Dean Henry Butler for raising the largest gift in university history and to his faculty for what I expect to be a transformative milestone in the already remarkable trajectory of a leading law school.
These are exciting times for our university. Very few institutions have achieved what we have in as short a time: a 34,000 student body, a position among the top research universities in the nation, a culture of innovation and inclusion, and an extraordinary record of student success. With your work and the support of our community, we will continue to be an example of what a public university is about.
I thank you for everything you do to support our university.