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AG office: GMU name change does not need state approval

McLEAN (AP) George Mason University does not need state approval to name its law school for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, according to Virginia’s attorney general’s office.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, or SCHEV, had been scheduled to vote on the name change Tuesday. Instead, it will vote on whether it has any authority to weigh in at all.

Mason announced the plans for a name change as part of a $10 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation and a $20 million matching grant from an anonymous donor. The anonymous contribution is contingent on renaming the school.

The Charles Koch Foundation is affiliated with the billionaire industrialist who has a long history of supporting conservative and libertarian causes. The university’s law school has developed a reputation as a conservative bastion. Scalia, in his three decades on the court, became a conservative icon.

When the university announced its plans March 31, the proposed Antonin Scalia School of Law was mocked for its unfortunate acronym. A week later, the school tweaked the new name to the Antonin Scalia Law School.

The university had anticipated that it would need approval from SCHEV. But at a SCHEV meeting Monday in Lexington, members of the council’s Academic Affairs Committee said they had received guidance for the attorney general’s office that SCHEV has no authority to weigh in on the law school’s plans because the proposed change does not affect the school’s mission, programming or enrollment.

Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said Monday that no formal advisory opinion was given and that any informal advice provided by the office is protected by attorney-client privilege.

Under state law, SCHEV must determine whether the name change proposal amounts to a “simple” or a “complex” change in the school’s organizational structure. SCHEV staff initially concluded that the change is “complex” and requires SCHEV approval. Staff noted that the agreement requires more than a name change: The deal requires the creation of 57 new scholarships annually and the addition of 12 new faculty.

The deal also states that the continued presence of the law school’s dean, Henry Butler, is “a critical part of advancing the School’s Mission,” and requires the donors to be notified if he is no longer dean.

SCHEV still plans to allow about two dozen people who signed up to give public comment on the name change. Most of those who signed up opposed the change.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, who launched a petition opposing the name change that received 1,300 signatures, said he still plans to speak in opposition.

“We can’t let the law school pretend that they’re just changing the name,” he said, citing various conditions imposed on acceptance of the grant. “I characterize this not so much as a gift, but as a purchase of naming rights.”

The university’s faculty Senate also voted to express “deep concern” about the name change, saying it was concerned about celebrating a justice “who made numerous public offensive comments about various groups — including people of color, women and LGBTQ individuals.” The Senate also said it was concerned about branding the university as a conservative institution.

The law school’s faculty, meanwhile, voted unanimously to support the name changes, accusing the faculty Senate of ideological bias and praising Scalia as “among the most consequential figures in the history of the Supreme Court.”

— MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press

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