Unlike my friends of a leftish persuasion, I don’t have a problem with Charles and David Koch. I largely agree with their libertarian political philosophy. In a nation awash in foundations that underwrite liberal and progressive causes on college campuses, I am happy to see at least one organization backing free-market/limited government principles. In particular, I’m a big fan of the Koch-supported Mercatus Center at George Mason University, whose scholars I quote frequently in this blog. Without the Koch brothers, academia would be even less diverse intellectually than it already is.
But my personal affinity for the Koch brothers does not alter my opinion that any dealings they have with public Virginia universities should be fully transparent. Therefore, I am inclined to endorse a lawsuit filed by Transparent GMU, a student group with legal backing from the liberal-left Appalachian Mountain Advocates, against GMU. The purpose of the lawsuit is to compel GMU, under the Freedom of Information Act, to release records about donor agreements between the Kochs and the university.
The Charles Koch Foundation has donated $48 million to GMU between 2011 and 2014. Charles Koch himself serves on the board of the Mercatus Center. It is a legitimate matter of public inquiry to know what strings might be attached to Koch’s donations. Of course, the same holds true not just with Koch but any and all mega-donors to the university, including industrialists pursuing business interests and philanthropists backing liberal and progressive causes.
GMU officials argue otherwise, according to Fourth Estate, GMU’s student-run news outlet.
“Philanthropy is a critical aspect of George Mason’s success, especially in a time when public universities are receiving fewer funds from the Commonwealth,” GMU spokesman Michael Sandler told the publication by email. “We are grateful to the thousands of donors who give to Mason for a variety of reasons. Some of these donors wish to make their gifts public. Some wish to remain anonymous, which is their right and something the university and the Foundation have a responsibility to respect.”
Privacy is a serious matter worthy of debate. But that wasn’t the logic given in GMU’s response to Transparent GMU’s FOIA request.
In a Jan. 9, 2017, FOIA filing, Transparent GMU sought any records, including grants, cooperative agreements, gift agreements, contracts or memoranda of understanding, related to to contributions that Koch-related entities made to the university. On Jan. 12, Elizabeth Woodley, FOIA compliance officer, replied that GMU was not in possession of such records.
Transparent GMU then asked if the George Mason University Foundation would provide the records. GMU refused to turn over any foundation records on the grounds that it was a separate, private, 401(c)3 charitable organization not subject to FOIA. Citing a fee it enacts on gifts its accepts on GMU’s behalf and its close working relationship with the GMU administration, the lawsuit argues that the foundation is a “component unit” of the university.
The lawsuit is much bigger than GMU and the Koch brothers. Conservatives and libertarians might be inclined for reasons of partisanship to side with GMU in this instance in order to shield Charles Koch and the Mercatus Center from scrutiny. That would be short-sighted, in my view. If there are terms and conditions, then Koch and Mercatus should be willing to defend them.
The internal workings of public research are a black box. GMU alone has dozens of centers and institutes. Last year, I blogged extensively about inadequate oversight of GMU’s Institute for Global Environment and Society, some of whose principals engaged in double dipping. More recently, I have tried to probe the link between the pursuit of research dollars and higher tuition at public Virginia universities generally. We need to crack open university finances. We need to understand the forces at work influencing the affordability and academic integrity of higher ed. Conservatives and libertarians have much more to gain than lose from a court ruling subjecting donor agreements to the reach of FOIA.