GMU STUDENTS ARE GOING TO THE SUPREME COURT!
Transparent GMU, a student advocacy organization at George Mason University, is going to the Supreme Court over access to donor agreements between their school and the Charles Koch Foundation. Victory in this case would mean that Mason’s fundraising foundation would be required to release donor agreements that detail the terms and conditions that come attached to any privately-funded educational programs, research, and faculty lines on campus—details students say the public has a right to know.
Despite George Mason being a public university, donor agreements with the Charles Koch Foundation and other private funders have been kept secret from students, faculty, and Virginia taxpayers for years. The university uses a private fundraising foundation, the GMU Foundation, to accept all of its private donations-- it then claims the GMU Foundation is not subject to the state’s open records laws.
The students disagree. Their case argues that the fundraising foundation is performing a core function of the public university, making its activities subject to Virginia open records laws just like any other public institution in the state.
Represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, the students had their case heard by the Honorable Judge John M. Tran on April 24, 2018. When the judge ruled against them at the district level, the students immediately filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Virginia—which was granted on March 12, 2019. A hearing date has not yet been set.
Since first filing their lawsuit in February 2017, major developments have reinforced the importance of the students’ case.
On April 27, 2018, President Angel Cabrera emailed faculty and the student body stating that some of George Mason University’s donor agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence.” Shortly after, documents were released that proved the Charles Koch Foundation, through their funding of the Mercatus Center, had influence over faculty hiring and retention decisions in the school’s economics department.
The growing controversy surrounding private donations moved the Faculty Senate to pass motions calling on George Mason University to amend its Gift Acceptance Policy. Requested changes included ensuring that “all George Mason University Foundation gift, pledge, and grant agreements are published in a permanent online database for public review within 30 days of formal enactment” and electing two tenured faculty to serve on the Gift Acceptance Committee where they will be responsible for “evaluat[ing] all major gift agreements to funds other than the general fund or general endowment for real or perceived conflicts of interest with regard to faculty governance and academic freedom and autonomy.”
In response, the President commissioned an internal committee to review all active donor agreements affecting faculty. Although the committee concluded that it “did not find any egregious practices,” its report noted that 29 agreements had been flagged for a number of serious violations of academic freedom and faculty governance. This included instances where donors were provided the ability to participate in the selection of faculty; withdraw their funding if specific person(s) were not hired or retained in their current positions; oversee fellowship recruitment criteria and processes; and prevent the university from disclosing the existence of gift agreements or its contents. Other agreements were flagged for terms and conditions that applied undue fiscal burdens on the overall operations of the university.
Transparent GMU has been supporting the Faculty Senate’s efforts, calling the President’s internal review insufficient. To date, George Mason University’s Board of Visitors has not responded to the Faculty Senate’s call for improvements to the gift acceptance process.
The Charles Koch Foundation has donated over $129 million to George Mason University between 2005-2017. The university’s economics department received an additional pledge of $5 million in 2018, and its Schar School of Public Policy received a pledge for $1.1 million just earlier this month.
For questions or comments please contact UnKoch My Campus Campaign Director, Samantha Parsons, at samantha at unkochmycampus dot org