The Corner

Education

Just What Are Those University Foundations Up To?

Many of our public university foundations roll in money, yet the people of the state have a hard time finding out exactly what is being done with it.

The Martin Center’s Alex Contarino takes up that issue here.

In North Carolina (where the Center is located and Contarino is a student at UNC–Chapel Hill) he writes, “state oversight of university foundations is non-existent, leaving millions in taxpayer money free for foundations to spend without accountability.”

What’s the problem? The problem is that funds may go to an array of uses that smack of cronyism. Contarino points out that “foundations frequently supplement the salaries of school officials, including presidents, athletic directors, and coaches. These bonuses can be quite lucrative — often to the tune of $30,000 or more. And foundations often employ high-profile university administrators on their own executive boards, and provide them with comfortable salaries to boot.” A truly egregious instance occurred at Sonoma State University, where the foundation’s board approved loans to its own members.

Concerned people (and this is an issue that cuts across ideological lines) have been trying to increase transparency and accountability for quite some time and they’ve employed two approaches.

One of them is for the legislature to mandate increased transparency through measures such as making foundation board meetings subject to the state’s open-meetings act.

The other looks to the judiciary to mandate openness through freedom of information act requests and whistleblower suits.

Neither approach has been entirely successful.

That state with the best approach, Contarino argues, is Nevada. “The Silver State,” he writes, “is the only state that stipulates that university foundations are public agencies, meaning nearly every aspect of a foundation’s operations must be made public. This also means that foundation employees are state employees, and hence subject to the state’s open records laws, too.”

As Justice Brandeis said about sunshine . . . 

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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