GMU Law School Renaming a Possible Roadblock to Diversity - Higher Education
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GMU Law School Renaming a Possible Roadblock to Diversity

by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

When Jacquelyn Branscomb—a second-year evening law school student at George Mason University—got a letter recently informing her that she had been awarded a scholarship from the school, she hesitated as to whether to accept the money.

George Mason University

George Mason University

That’s because the scholarship—called the A. Linwood Holton, Jr. Leadership Scholarship—was awarded with funds that came from a controversial $30 million donation that was contingent upon the law school being renamed in honor of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice often criticized for rendering rulings and making public remarks seen as offensive toward African-Americans, gays and women.

“I have mixed feelings about it but law school is expensive,” Branscomb told Diverse in reference to her scholarship to study law at Mason, where tuition for law school students is about $25,000 for in-state students and about $41,000 for out-of-state students.

Branscomb ultimately accepted the scholarship. She declined to disclose the amount but said her rationale was that the money would not only help pay her way through law school but help enable her to fight to improve diversity as well. Branscomb is of mixed Filipino and African-American heritage.

“I figured, why not use the money to improve diversity at the school? Because I feel like I have a different political background than most people at the school,” said Branscomb, who is a board member of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and a member of the Black Law Student Association at Mason.

“It’s almost ironic to accept the money,” Branscomb conceded. “It just seems like the money is for renaming the law school the Scalia School of Law and his conservative background, but I’m receiving funds and I’m not a conservative person. I just feel like: Why not?”

In many ways, Branscomb finds herself in the same position as the law school itself—accepting money for practical purposes even though the money is associated with an influential legal figure whose views are as resented as they are revered.

Critics of the name change worry that it could send the wrong message about diversity at Mason.

In a resolution passed in April, the Faculty Senate at Mason expressed concern about “the celebration of a Supreme Court Justice who made numerous public offensive comments about various groups—including people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals—which this university has appropriately gone to some lengths to embrace as valued parts of the university community.”

Among other things, Scalia has been criticized for suggesting that African-Americans do better in “slower-track” schools, and equating homosexuality with adult incest and bestiality.

“There is clear concern that naming the Law School after Justice Scalia could harm efforts to attract students from diverse backgrounds,” Keith D. Renshaw, an associate professor of psychology at Mason and chair of the Faculty Senate, wrote in an email to Diverse.

Indeed, Branscomb related that some students have expressed concern about having Scalia’s name on their law degrees. She said that, when she goes to events and interacts with law students from other schools, she sometimes gets a “snicker or someone shaking their head or a question [such as], ‘You all agreed to that?’”

“The name, whether we want it to or not, will follow us throughout our career,” Branscomb said. “Many students were concerned about how their employment prospects in the future would be affected with the name Antonin Scalia on their resume or diploma.”

Renshaw stated that the Faculty Senate hopes that Mason’s commitment to diversity will “help to override concerns that potential applicants may have.”

“Time will tell if the goals specifically related to diversity can be achieved,” Renshaw wrote.

But some administrators and faculty at the newly minted Antonin Scalia Law School say there is no need to worry that naming the school in honor of Justice Scalia will move the law school toward a more conservative ideology and doctrine.

“One thing that’s important to remember is that the renaming was not intended to be a flag-planting moment in which the law school adopted the personal and jurisprudential views of Justice Scalia,” said Rachelle Holmes Perkins, associate dean for academic affairs and an associate professor of law at Mason as well as faculty advisor to the Mason Black Law Students Association. “That’s not what this naming is about.”

Perkins said it’s important to note that Scalia himself “not only welcomed but sought out a diversity of viewpoints.” She cited Scalia’s lively discussions and debates with fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and his seeking out of liberal clerks to work in his chambers as proof.

Perkins said the law school will operate in a similar manner and “continue to give the type of intellectual rigor you get when you include a range of ideas and experiences, because we think that makes better lawyers.”

“We recognize that, no matter what we say or do, [people are] going to make assumptions about us and the direction of the law school simply because of the name,” Perkins said. “What we can hope is over time our reputation will speak for itself and people will see that this is a place that is inclusive and where all viewpoints are welcome, and people of all backgrounds and viewpoints are able to thrive.”

Along those lines, the $30 million donation — $20 million from an anonymous donor and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation — will be used to establish three new scholarship programs that will be run by the law school.

The three scholarships are:

  • The Antonin Scalia Scholarship for Academic Excellence, which will be given to students with excellent academic credentials.
  • The A. Linwood Holton, Jr. Leadership Scholarship, named in honor of the former governor of Virginia. This scholarship will be given to students who have “overcome barriers to academic success, demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities, or have helped others overcome discrimination in any facet of life.”
  • The F.A. Hayek Law, Legislation, and Liberty Scholarship, which is named for the 1974 Nobel Prize winner in economics. It will be awarded to students who have a “demonstrated interest in studying the application of economic principles to the law.”

There is no specific dollar amount for any of the scholarships.

Alison H. Price, associate dean for admissions and enrollment management at the Mason law school, said the idea behind the scholarships is to make the university more competitive with other law schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Though Mason’s main campus is located in Fairfax, the university’s law school is located in Arlington, Virginia, just minutes from D.C., to make it easier for students to take advantage of the opportunities that exist in the District.

“Every dollar of the $30 million is for scholarships,” Price said. “And we hope that with that we will increase the diversity of our student body and also the caliber of our student body and bring in more students.”

Bringing in more students will lead to more revenue, “and more revenue will have its natural outflows,” Price said.

Price said all students admitted to Mason law school will be automatically considered for the scholarships when they apply.

As per previous Supreme Court rulings, schools cannot set quotas or try to enroll a target percentage of students who are minorities.

Thus, Price is not able to specify what the law school’s demographics should look like in a few years as a result of the $30 million donation in comparison to what its demographics look like now.

“I’ve been doing admissions since 2006,” Price said. “My objective is to matriculate the most diverse class I can matriculate.

“You have a much richer class when you have all kinds of people,” Price continued. “Who thinks a [legal] opinion is good or not is influenced by your experience.”

At Mason’s law school, 22.3 percent of law students are minorities, according to data from the American Bar Association (ABA). That is higher than the 21 percent who are minorities at the University of Virginia (UVA)’s law school, and the 21.3 percent at Washington & Lee University’s law school, but lower than the 25 percent at the law school at George Washington University (GWU).

Price explained that diversity transcends a student’s racial and ethnic background.

“When we look for diversity, I’m not looking just to race and ethnicity,” Price said. “I’m looking at associations, background, religious belief, political,” Price said. “You want the most diverse group you can have.”

Mason officials say they hope to increase faculty diversity too as a result of the increased revenue.

“We would love for the faculty to be as diverse as possible, as far as race, ethnicity, viewpoints, for the same reason we want our classroom environment to be as vigorous and robust as possible,” Perkins said.

About 13.6 percent of faculty and administrators at Mason were minorities in 2015, higher than the 7.7 at UVA, slightly higher than the 13.4 percent at GWU, but lower than the 16 percent at Washington & Lee, according to the ABA.

“Do we have a specific number in mind? No, we don’t,” Perkins said. “But it will be something that is important to us as we look forward to the composition of faculty.”

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