The contest over Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination became a flash point in the #MeToo movement, as well as an illustration of the polarization and distrust poisoning American politics. Now, the dispute is playing at George Mason University: It has become the latest front in the campus culture wars, reflecting broader upheaval over sexual violence, political correctness, free speech and sensitivity.
That comes after the university announced that Kavanaugh will head to Runnymede, England, this summer to teach a course on the origins of the U.S. Constitution to students at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School — 3,600 miles from the Arlington campus.
He will be joined in the English countryside by Jennifer Mascott, an assistant professor of law at George Mason. One of Kavanaugh’s former clerks on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Mascott came to his defense when his nomination was threatened last year by allegations of sexual misconduct, which he vehemently denied. “He has acted with the utmost character and integrity,” she told “PBS NewsHour.”
Some students at the university’s main campus in Fairfax City see matters differently. After news of his hire surfaced at the end of March in the undergraduate newspaper, the Fourth Estate, survivors of sexual assault mobilized to demand that he be terminated.
The judge, who was first nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and to the nation’s top court by President Trump, used to teach at Harvard Law School. But administrators in Cambridge, Mass., informed students last fall that he had decided not to return this year to teach his course, “The Supreme Court Since 2005.” The announcement followed calls for Harvard, by hundreds of its students and alumni, to revoke his status as a lecturer.
In a petition, a group that calls itself “Mason 4 Survivors” is asking university administrators to remove Kavanaugh and issue a formal apology to victims of sexual assault. It also calls for the public release of documents related to the judge’s hire, including “emails, donor agreements, and contracts.” And it requests a town hall by April 25 to discuss the “implications for students” of bringing the Supreme Court justice on board.
Right-leaning and libertarian websites have pounced on the debate, painting students as petulant and their demands as threatening to civil discourse. “It would be a terrible blow to the principles of fairness and academic freedom if a university were to un-person one of the foremost judicial figures in the country over this,” wrote Reason editor Robby Soave.
But in appearances before George Mason’s leadership, students have not screamed and cried. Rather, they have explained why they object to the hiring decision.
“As a survivor of sexual assault, this decision has really impacted me negatively,” one student said, according to a clip of a meeting last Wednesday with the university’s Board of Visitors that was published by the College Fix, a conservative site focused on higher education.
The student protesters have taken to social media and appeared at meetings of the university’s leadership to voice their concerns, which they have tied to broader grievances about the way the university polices sexual misconduct and the resources that it provides to victims.
Kavanaugh has become a focal point for their organizing. Protesters have marched across the university’s grounds, chanting, “Kick Kavanaugh off campus!"
George Mason’s president, Ángel Cabrera, said he wouldn’t do so. In a statement at the end of March, the university leader and management scholar said the course had been approved by the law school faculty in January and announced to law students shortly thereafter. He explained that an information session about the opportunity had been held in early February, and that the class was already over-enrolled.
“I respect the views of people who disagreed with Justice Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation due to questions raised about his sexual conduct in high school,” Cabrera stated. “But he was confirmed and is now a sitting Justice. The law school has determined that the involvement of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice contributes to making our law program uniquely valuable for our students. And I accept their judgment.”
In fact, as the university president noted, another Supreme Court justice is also scheduled to teach overseas classes to George Mason law students this summer. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who replaced the law school’s namesake on the court, will for the second time teach a class in Padua, Italy, about national security and the separation of powers.
At a meeting with faculty last week about Kavanaugh, a clip of which was circulated by the College Fix, Cabrera defended the decision, saying it was not a “crazy appointment” to have a Supreme Court justice teach a course on the Constitution.
A professor chimed in: “Well, should we investigate that?”
Students at the back of the room snapped in an expression of approval.
A supplementary investigation concluded by the FBI in early October could not corroborate accusations of sexual misconduct, though the probe was highly limited, for instance not involving interviews with Kavanaugh or his primary accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
The university’s president suggested it would be unrealistic for George Mason to investigate a sitting Supreme Court justice.
“We do our due diligence on all hires,” a man in the room objected. “This is a hire.”
“Agreed,” someone else called out.
There was no reply from the president, as an official stepped in and asked for final questions, saying time was short.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who has been battling Trump on other fronts as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, vowed last fall to undertake a fresh investigation of the assault claims if Democrats retook the chamber, which they did. (He later clarified that the committee was not intent on investigating Kavanaugh or pursuing his impeachment but only considering whether the FBI examination was sufficient.)
At the time, Ford was unable to live at home because of the volume of death threats she was receiving.