Dear Commons Community,
The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that a group of students suffered a setback last week, when a Virginia judge rejected their attempt to lift the curtain of secrecy shielding gifts to a foundation that raises money for George Mason.
“The case involved a George Mason student group, Transparent GMU, that had sued to gain access to donor agreements between the Koch Foundation and the George Mason University Foundation. The students argued that George Mason’s foundation, an entity that accepts and manages private gifts, works for the public university and should be subject to the same open-records laws.
But the judge, John M. Tran of Fairfax County Circuit Court, found that the foundation is not a public body under current Virginia law. He deferred to state legislators to change that law if they saw fit.
The ruling does little to clarify an already-cloudy legal picture. As The Chronicle has reported, little consensus exists on the reporting obligations of university foundations. States like California have put laws in place that subject those foundations to open-records requests. Other states, like Connecticut, have laws exempting foundations. The question has divided state courts.
Thursday’s decision was issued as the Koch Foundation continues to pour money into academic programs. The foundation donated $49 million to more than 250 colleges in 2016, according to the Associated Press, a 47-percent spike over the previous year.
At George Mason, students and professors had long pressed to find out more about the university’s Koch ties. In April their pressure led George Mason to release some older agreements, dating as far back as 2003, between outside funders and the university. Those documents revealed that donors had leeway to influence faculty hiring and assessment. George Mason’s president, Ángel Cabrera, said the deals fell short of academic standards and announced a review of gift-acceptance policies.
The students’ lawsuit sought access to a wider swath of unreleased donor records that they believe are currently held by George Mason’s fund-raising foundation. They pledged to appeal Thursday’s decision to the Virginia Supreme Court…
… The judge’s ruling did offer some hope for transparency advocates.
“This decision does not mean that the university has unfettered right to keep secret its use of gifted funds to create programs in compliance with conditions and restrictions imposed upon those gifts,” Tran wrote.
The judge noted that, when it comes to donations with strings attached, those gifts could become public records once they are accepted and used by the university.”