George Mason University Faculty and Students Question Agreements with Major Donors!

Dear Commons Community,

George Mason University has historically been the recipient of a number of major donations from conservative sources.  A New York Times analysis estimated that the Charles Koch Foundation alone has given $50 million to the university over the last ten years.  The recent renaming of its Law School for Antonin Scalia has stoked concerns on the campus that large donor contributions are not getting enough disclosure regarding terms and conditions of the  gifts.  As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The controversy surrounding George Mason University’s relationship with donors escalated on Wednesday, as its Faculty Senate called for the suspension of an agreement between the law school and the Charles Koch Foundation that has divided many professors here.

Last week the Senate passed a resolution expressing “deep concerns” with plans to rename the law school for the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, and protesting the university administration’s failure to disclose more about the agreement. On Wednesday it took an even more aggressive stance. The Senate voted 25 to 12 to call on the university’s leaders to put the agreement, which also involved an anonymous donor, on hold to subject it to more review. The Senate also called for greater oversight of such deals.

“We need to stand up for our rights,” David L. Kuebrich, an associate professor of English and a Faculty Senate member, said in urging his colleagues to pass the measure, which he characterized as written to ensure that their institution conforms with the American Association of University Professors’ standards dealing with donor agreements. He denounced the process by which the university approved the agreement with the law school’s donors, who pledged $30 million for scholarships over several years, as “too rushed — maybe deliberately so.”

Citing a provision in the agreement that has especially aroused faculty opposition — a requirement that the donors be notified if the university replaces the law school’s current dean, Henry N. Butler — Mr. Kuebrich said “donors should have nothing to do with faculty.”

In a separate voice vote, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a motion to request that Ángel Cabrera, George Mason’s president, and Tom Davis, rector of the university’s Board of Visitors, answer a series of questions betraying suspicion of the agreement. One of them asked what the university would do if the anonymous donor cut off the pledged funds before handing all of the money over.

In response to Wednesday’s Faculty Senate votes, Renell Wynn, a university spokeswoman, issued a statement that said George Mason “appreciates the valuable feedback” the Senate offered and is committed to promoting diversity and not being aligned with any single ideological position. She also said, however, that “this gift provides $30 million for scholarships, and that money will help hundreds of students attend law school — students who otherwise might not have had that chance.”

“That is why this gift is so important to Mason,” she went on, “and why we believe we should continue to move forward.”

More than 30 student groups signed a statement criticizing the proposed renaming of the law school as undermining the university’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. Speaking to the Faculty Senate, Geoffrey Payne, a junior who is a spokesman for the student group Pride Alliance, argued that, as a gay and transgender student, he would “feel less safe at Mason because the name change would lend credibility to judicial opinions and public statements which fanned the flames of homophobia and transphobia.”

Samantha Parsons, a senior who has been president of the group GMU Student Power, reiterated her group’s demand that all of the university’s grant agreements and memorandums of understanding with private donors “be made transparent and public.” She denounced the proposed law-school name change as “a symptom of a much deeper problem: undue donor influence and our university’s lack of consultation with important university stakeholders, such as faculty and students.”

A difficult issue for a venerable institution but disclosure usually is the best course of action in these situations.  The faculty and students are right to demand greater transparency.


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