Virginia Democrats Want More Transparency In University Donations Revelations that major donors, including the Charles Koch Foundation, had undue influence over academic affairs sparked the lawsuit.
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Virginia Democrats Want More Transparency In University Donations

Virginia Democrats Want More Transparency In University Donations

Virginia lawmakers say they want to increase transparency into fundraising organizations like the George Mason University Foundation. Adam Fagen/Flickr hide caption

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Adam Fagen/Flickr

Two Democratic state delegates in Virginia say they are working on legislation that would pry open the fundraising activities of entities like the George Mason University Foundation. They were responding to a Virginia Supreme Court decision last week upholding a ruling that shields the foundation from transparency rules.

Revelations that major donors, including the Charles Koch Foundation, had undue influence over academic affairs sparked the lawsuit.

Del. David Bulova of Fairfax said he has drafted two proposals that would apply transparency rules, including the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or VFOIA, to non-profit foundations affiliated with state and public institutions of higher education.

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The first bill would prohibit anonymous donors from attaching restrictions to their contributions. Another would make any agreement outlining such restrictions subject to VFOIA.

"We rely on private donors for our universities," Bulova said. "My concern is making sure that those donations don't influence the academic independence of our institutions."

Bulova said he plans to submit legislation ahead of the January legislative session. A second Democrat, Del. Marcus Simon of Falls Church, said he would be drafting legislation "this session or the next, but more likely this session."

A "Blow For Transparency"

The university referred questions to the George Mason Foundation. Terri Beirne, the chair of the foundation's board of trustees, wrote in a statement that the foundation "is very pleased with the sound ruling issued by the Supreme Court of Virginia."

She said maintaining privacy encourages donations and while offsetting the need for hiking tuition or taxes to cover university expenses. Nevertheless, Beirne said, the foundation has increased transparency.

Del. Simon said he would be cautious in his draft bill to keep an option for donors to remain anonymous while still shedding light on how their gifts could influence academic life.

"We don't want to create a scheme where it's impossible to solicit donations," Simon said. "It may be appropriate to keep the names and identities of the donor a secret ... but when there's a quid pro quo for some of these gifts and grants, I think the public has a right to know."

Bethany Letiecq, a professor of family science and president of the Mason Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the ruling "was quite a blow for transparency." She said faculty and students had worked with the university to craft new policies that would create a public record of gift agreements going forward. However, she said older agreements were still shrouded in secrecy.

Donations With Strings Attached

The ruling was the final step in a lawsuit that began in 2017 when student activists associated with the group Transparent GMU filed VFOIA requests for records of grants and gift agreements connected to the billionaire Koch brothers. The university said it had no such records, and the George Mason Foundation asserted it was not a public body and its records were not public records subject to VFOIA, according to court documents.

As the case progressed, George Mason University released documents revealing past contributions from Koch and other large donors had significant strings attached, including influence in hiring faculty. At the time, GMU President Angel Cabrera wrote that nearly all those arrangements had expired. Still, Cabrera wrote, "these agreements fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet."

The student activists continued to press for access to donor agreements. Last year, the Circuit Court of Fairfax County ruled the foundation was not a public body because it has its own bylaws.

Attorney Evan Johns filed an appeal to the state's highest court.

"We were assured by the [university] administration at that time that there were no active agreements that included terms like those found in the ones that were disclosed to us," Johns said. "We'd hoped the lawsuit would confirm that that was true."

In a unanimous opinion, Virginia's Supreme Court rejected the students' appeal, noting that non-profit foundations were not explicitly included in the state's transparency legislation. The decision suggested the General Assembly, not the courts, would have to address the issue.

Johns said there was no further legal channel to appeal.

Del. Simon of Falls Church said the ruling spurred him to tackle transparency in the next legislative session.

"It's an invitation to the legislature to make a change," he said.

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