George Mason University President Ángel Cabrera acknowledged this month that his school gave the Charles Koch Foundation “some influence” over hiring and evaluating faculty as it accepted millions of dollars for its free-market research center, the Mercatus Center.
This news rankled the academic world, but it perhaps didn’t come as a surprise. Many scholars saw this as just the latest revelation of strings-attached giving with an ideological slant – another encroachment on the sacrosanct idea that teaching and research at universities, especially public ones like George Mason, must be immune from outside influence.
Cabrera himself admitted that the Koch agreements with the Northern Virginia school “fall short of the standard of academic independence we should expect in every gift,” but as a journalist-turned-professor who has researched dozens of similar scenarios, I think transparency is a bigger issue than academic freedom.
Foundations that raise, spend and invest private support for public universities have become staples of higher education in the last 40 years. They often refuse freedom of information requests, claiming that transparency laws governing their affiliated schools do not apply to independently operated 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
A thin veneer
Yet public-university foundations exist solely for the benefit of state-sponsored institutions, and they do work that the schools previously handled themselves. Furthermore, as state support for higher education has dried up, this kind of giving has increasingly funded such essentials as administrators’ salaries, academic programs, campus construction projects and scholarships.
The Governmental Accounting Standards Board, an independent private-sector organization that sets accounting and financial reporting standards, considers the foundations to be “component units” of public universities for three reasons. First, they fundraise for specific schools. Second, those schools get most of that money. Third, schools count on that revenue.
In most states, however, the foundations and their records are generally presumed to be private.
Transparent GMU’s lawsuit
The GMU Foundation is in court and the news because Transparent GMU sued when its records request was declined, arguing that because the foundation conducts business on behalf of a public university, it should be considered an arm of the school and therefore subject to the state’s freedom of information law.
Activists and journalists have long monitored Koch higher education donations because of the scope and breadth of their giving, which totaled about $150 million between 2005 and 2015, according to media reports. Still, the concern should extend beyond the Kochs to cover transparency for all gift agreements of whatever political hue.
BB&T also demanded that grantees create faculty positions, centers, speaker series and scholarships as part of a “Moral Foundations of Capitalism” program.
The driving issue
In short, I see no way to safeguard academic freedom without transparency. All the conditions embedded in gift agreements related to public colleges and universities should be brought to light, in my opinion.
It would be great to include private schools as well, but they by definition are private entities not subject to sunshine laws.
If names must be protected, the next best thing might be having objective third parties like state auditors vet these agreements. That way, any potential conflicts of interest or undue influence could more systematically come to light. The Hartford Courant suggested this approach in an editorial supporting a bill that would have made the UConn Foundation subject to Connecticut’s freedom of information law. The legislature has since forced the foundation to be more transparent, though it is still not subject to that law.
Once courts and state governments do more to resolve the question of whether university-linked foundations are subject to disclosure requirements, the public might finally see whether their state schools are offering academic influence to all big donors – not just the Koch brothers.