[Marxism] To Court a Secretive Donor, Law Deans at George Mason Blasted Climate Scientists and Their Own Accreditor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 19 06:43:43 MST 2019


Chronicle of Higher Education
To Court a Secretive Donor, Law Deans at George Mason Blasted Climate 
Scientists and Their Own Accreditor
By Nell Gluckman and Jack Stripling DECEMBER 18, 2019  PREMIUM

Leaders of George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, which 
has been criticized for its ties to conservative donors, have spent 
years courting a wealthy Chicago philanthropist who has steered money 
toward organizations that promote skepticism of climate change or 
finance conservative and libertarian journalism on college campuses.

Newly released documents show the extent to which Barre Seid, the 
philanthropist, sought to engage law-school deans on hot-button 
political topics. On several occasions he raised alarms about political 
activism by climate scientists at George Mason, prompting assurances 
from the dean that “some of our friends on the board” were “all over it 
(behind the scenes).”

The documents, which include more than 800 pages of emails and other 
communications, were obtained through a public-records request filed by 
UnKoch My Campus, a national group that seeks to expose the Charles Koch 
Foundation’s influence on higher education.

In 2016, George Mason announced that it had received a $10 million grant 
from the Koch Foundation, along with $20 million from an anonymous 
donor, who asked that the law school be named in honor of Scalia, the 
late Supreme Court justice and a conservative icon. In a news release on 
Thursday, Allison Pienta, a lawyer working with UnKoch My Campus, argued 
that the documents she had obtained “prove that Mr. Seid is the Scalia 
Law donor.”

“Taxpayers, students, Virginia citizens, we have a right to know who is 
donating to a public law school and asking the law school in return to 
serve their interest.”
Pienta, who had requested records that contained the anonymous donor’s 
name, suspected that Seid had been the benefactor in part because people 
associated with him are referred to in a number of exchanges. She 
concluded that he was the donor after cross-referencing those emails 
with others that mention Seid by name.

Anne Holton, George Mason’s interim president, said in a letter to 
Pienta that the university could not “confirm or deny your conclusion” 
that Seid is the anonymous donor, “as universities have an obligation to 
respect a donor’s right to anonymity.”

After reviewing the records, which contained numerous redactions to 
protect donor privacy, The Chronicle could not independently verify the 
identity of the donor. What the records do show, however, is a 
yearslong, politically tinged dialogue between Seid and two successive 
deans of George Mason’s law school.

People who are concerned about undue donor influence often envision 
clear-cut quid pro quos or prescriptive gift agreements that grant 
wealthy people too much control over the academic enterprise. These 
documents imply a subtler form of influence, one in which a donor 
elevates concerns about a professor or a regulatory body just by passing 
information along to university decision makers.

An Activist Donor

As told through the documents, the story of Seid’s relationships with 
Daniel D. Polsby, former dean of the law school, and his successor, 
Henry N. Butler, begins at least nine years ago. By that time, Seid had 
already been working to transform a tiny part of the higher-education 
landscape. Through the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation, he gave 
$825,000 to Shimer College, an institution that enrolled about 100 
students and followed the Great Books curriculum. After the donation, 
several people with financial ties to Seid joined the college’s Board of 
Trustees, and a fierce battle over governance of the college followed.

(In 2017, Shimer was absorbed by North Central College, which added the 
Shimer Great Books School as an academic program).

Between 2011 and 2016, Seid had or had scheduled at least seven meetings 
with one or both of George Mason’s law deans.

The deans found in Seid an inquisitive communicator, particularly when 
it came to conservative causes. In 2012, for example, he wrote to Polsby 
asking for “any insight” into a new program, housed at George Mason, 
that was established by the former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis. 
The question was notable given Seid’s apparent interest in the politics 
of climate science. Inglis had been voted out of office two years 
earlier during his primary, largely because he supported a tax on 
carbon. Now he was being embraced by George Mason.

Inglis’s program, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, was meant to 
“promote conservative solutions to America’s energy and climate 
challenges.” Polsby responded to Seid right away, appearing to distance 
himself and the law school from the program.

“Inglis’s new center is in a different college from us,” Polsby said. 
“The law school has no role and wasn’t asked before the announcement was 
made.”

The conversations at times took on an antiregulatory flavor. In one 
exchange with Seid, in 2013, Polsby launched into a broadside against 
the law school’s accrediting agency. The American Bar Association, he 
wrote, “has added all kinds of dubious nonsense in its accreditation 
standards.”

“Poking them in the eye,” Polsby continued, “would be a genuine pleasure.”

Seid seemed particularly curious about the powers of higher-education 
regulators. Who was to say whether a person could operate a school, he 
wondered? Did you need the state’s permission, he asked Polsby? Did you 
need accreditation?

The impetus for that discussion was a Chronicle article that said the 
state of Virginia was shutting down an unaccredited university.

‘Outrageous Behavior’

In 2015, the year Butler became dean, a controversy in climate science 
captured Seid’s attention. Butler assured the philanthropist that he, 
too, was aghast.

A group of 20 professors, including some at George Mason, signed a 
letter urging the Obama administration to open a racketeering 
investigation into fossil-fuel companies and their allies. The companies 
had “knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate 
change,” the professors wrote, and could be investigated under the 
Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO.

This wasn’t the professors’ idea. Several months earlier, U.S. Sen. 
Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, had proposed the 
possibility of suing fossil-fuel companies under RICO, just as the 
Justice Department had done to Big Tobacco more than a decade earlier. 
Tobacco companies had engaged in a “massive 50-year scheme to defraud 
the public,” the department had argued. The same might be said of 
fossil-fuel companies, Senator Whitehouse wrote, which had sponsored 
climate-change research that contradicts peer-reviewed consensus.

Seid forwarded to Butler a blog post by Judith A. Curry, a high-profile 
skeptic of climate science and former chairwoman of the Georgia 
Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. 
Curry wrote that “the consensus on human caused climate change is not as 
overwhelming as you seem to think.” She admonished the professors for 
engaging in “irresponsible advocacy,” accusing them of trying to 
“silence scientists that disagree with you.”

“Is it significant that 6 GMU guys,” Seid wrote to Butler, “were the 
originators” of the letter.

“This is really outrageous behavior,” Butler replied on September 18, 
2015. “I do not know the GMU folks who signed the letter, but they 
should be embarrassed. I wonder if they really understand anything about 
RICO, which was the source of much abuse by prosecutors (and the 
plaintiffs' bar in follow on private suits) until the Feds went totally 
crazy and criminalized almost all behavior (which meant there was less 
need to use conspiracy theories).”

A few weeks later, Seid forwarded to Butler another blog post on the 
same subject from Powerline, an outlet for conservative commentary.

“Not your problem — but. … ” Seid wrote to the dean.

The post, titled “An Instance of Warmist Corruption,” took aim at 
Jagadish Shukla, a climate scientist at George Mason and the first 
signatory to the professors’ letter calling for a RICO investigation. 
The blog described Shukla as “remarkably well paid” and suggested some 
form of financial malfeasance on his part.

Shukla was one of the lead authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on 
Climate Change report, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice 
President Al Gore Jr., in 2007.

Responding to the Powerline post, Butler assured Seid that powerful 
people at George Mason were involved with the matter.

“This is such absurd behavior,” Butler wrote to Seid on October 9, 2015. 
“Totally indefensible.

“Some of our friends on the board,” he continued, “are all over it 
(behind the scenes).”

That same month, George Mason began an internal audit of Shukla’s 
handling of grants, a university spokesman confirmed to The Chronicle.

By this time, Shukla had run smack into a political buzz saw. Lamar S. 
Smith, a Republican Congressman from Texas, had announced plans to 
investigate a nonprofit research group led by Shukla.

On November 5, 2015, Seid forwarded to Butler an email about Shukla from 
Joseph L. Bast, then the president of the Heartland Institute, a 
conservative think tank. Seid’s foundation has donated at least $1 
million to the institute, which rejects as “propaganda” the idea of 
scientific consensus on the causes and consequences of climate change. 
George Mason’s own “multimillionaire government trough-feeder,” Bast 
wrote, was finally being exposed.

In response to Seid, Butler wrote, “The president is freaking out about 
this,” referring to Ángel Cabrera, George Mason’s president at the time.

For a climate scientists like Shukla, criticism often comes with the 
job. But the newly released emails, Shukla told The Chronicle, suggest 
that those attackers had the ear of George Mason’s Board of Visitors.

“The ferocity of their attack was totally expected,” Shukla said in an 
email. “The fact that these guys had access to GMU board members, as the 
emails show, that is very unusual.”

Michael Sandler, a spokesman for George Mason, told The Chronicle that 
George Mason’s audit “concluded no wrongdoing on the part of Professor 
Shukla.”

The Chronicle requested a copy of the audit, but George Mason officials 
said it was a personnel record and not subject to public-disclosure laws.

As for congressional scrutiny, a politically connected board member says 
he came to Shukla’s defense. Thomas M. Davis III, the rector of George 
Mason’s board and a former Republican congressman from Virginia, said in 
an interview on Tuesday that he had quietly urged Representative Smith 
not to call a public hearing.

“I said ‘Look, lay off this guy,’” Davis said. “I made it clear we stood 
behind him and they ought to lay off him, and they did. I met with 
Shukla and told him we supported him.

“When one of our professors is under attack, either from the right or 
the left, we are behind them,” Davis continued.

Butler, the dean, declined an interview request and did not answer 
specific questions from The Chronicle about his emails. In a statement, 
Butler said he had nothing to do with the university's response to Shukla.

“I had no influence in this matter, nor did I attempt to exert any 
influence in this matter,” Butler’s statement reads. “I support academic 
freedom at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School and across the 
university. Academic freedom and an open marketplace of ideas, including 
room for robust debate, is the very foundation of higher learning.”

A spokeswoman for Tripp Lite, a manufacturing company where Seid served 
as president, did not respond to emails this week seeking comment from 
Seid, who did not respond to a phone message on Wednesday.

A University on the Defensive

For George Mason, the release of a new cache of documents related to 
donor influence marks a chapter in a continuing saga. For years the 
university has fought in courts of law and public opinion, defending its 
relationships with conservative philanthropists. Only recently, however, 
did the university acknowledge that it hasn’t always gotten it right.

Last year when Cabrera, then the university’s president, announced a 
review of George Mason’s gift-acceptance policies, he conceded that some 
of its grant agreements “fall short of the standards of academic 
independence.” The agreements gave donors opportunities to weigh in on 
faculty hiring and stated with some specificity what professors would study.

But donors can still keep their identities secret, making it difficult 
to discern their intent.

By channeling a gift through a third party, a donor can further obscure 
the source of the money. That appears to have happened at George Mason. 
Several of the newly released emails refer to Donors Trust, a nonprofit 
organization that, among other things, offers donors anonymity.

DonorsTrust describes itself as a public charity that was created to 
work with donors who are “dedicated to the ideals of limited government, 
personal responsibility, and free enterprise.” Mother Jones described it 
as “the dark-money ATM of the right.” In her book Dark Money: The Hidden 
History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane 
Mayer explained that donors could give to the fund, which in turn 
donated to conservative groups and, in effect, “erased the donors’ names 
from the money trail.”

That kind of opacity troubles some at George Mason, who say the public 
deserves more information about who may be exerting influence on a 
public university's leadership and its faculty members. Pienta, the 
lawyer working with UnKoch My Campus, said “Mason has become basically 
ground zero for improper donor influence on a public institution.”

“Taxpayers, students, Virginia citizens, we have a right to know who is 
donating to a public law school and asking the law school in return to 
serve their interest,” said Pienta, a graduate of George Mason’s law school.

Virginia code, however, exempts from disclosure any records that could 
reveal the identity of a donor who has requested anonymity. (The state’s 
Supreme Court ruled last week that George Mason’s fund-raising arm is 
exempt from public-records laws).

It is still not clear what Seid’s involvement in renaming the law school 
may have been, if anything. But when the school unveiled a 4,300-pound 
“Bill of Rights Eagle” statue in front of its building, Butler wanted 
Seid to know about it.

“Yesterday was a really cool day at Scalia Law,” he wrote to Seid in May 
2017, just over a year after the school was renamed. The sculptor had 
another project in the works, Butler explained: “a larger-than-life 
statue of Justice Scalia.”

Nell Gluckman is a senior reporter who writes about research, ethics, 
funding issues, affirmative action, and other higher-education topics. 
You can follow her on Twitter @nellgluckman, or email her at 
nell.gluckman at chronicle.com.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and 
governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at 
jack.stripling at chronicle.com.

Dan Bauman and Megan Zahneis contributed to this report.



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