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Open records request reveals donor influence at George Mason University

Documents produced pursuant to an open records request demonstrate that George Mason University entered into agreements with the Charles Koch Foundation and other donors between 2003 and 2011 that granted those donors broad input into faculty employment.

As the The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed report, these arrangements reveal close ties between donors and GMU decision-making regarding faculty hiring and retention. For example, the Chronicle reports that some agreements “contained stipulations allowing the donors to appoint members of a committee that oversees the professorships,” while others included donors in creating “advisory boards that would assess the professors’ performance.”

As detailed in the documents and reports, these arrangements threatened academic freedom.

In his concurring opinion in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), Justice Felix Frankfurter usefully identified “‘the four essential freedoms’ of a university — to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.’” Justice Frankfurter’s words are as correct now as they were then. Academic decisions must be left to the academy — not donors, legislators, or the general public. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors, which has defended academic freedom for more than a century, was founded in large part to shield academic decision-making from the influence of donors who might wish to unduly influence or dictate research, study, and instruction.

Academic decisions must be left to the academy — not donors, legislators, or the general public. 

FIRE addressed the propriety of similar arrangements a decade ago, after related questions were raised about the relationship between the Charles Koch Foundation and Florida State University in 2008. FIRE president and CEO Greg Lukianoff told Inside Higher Ed that in situations “where it seems that the donor would prefer the promotion of certain viewpoints, the university must not apply the grant in a way that would violate the free speech or academic freedom rights of its faculty or students.” Greg explained that “[d]epartments (and entire fields of study) often come with certain limited intellectual assumptions built in, but when these are transformed into mandatory ideological requirements they run afoul of principles of academic freedom.”

The document production follows several open records requests filed in recent years by students and alumni seeking information on the relationship between the Charles Koch Foundation and GMU. The Associated Press reported in 2016 that the foundation gave GMU close to $48 million between 2011 and 2014. A related lawsuit filed in 2017 by student group Transparent GMU against the university and a private fundraising corporation, the George Mason University Foundation, went to trial last week. GMU’s foundation is fighting a 2017 public records request, arguing that it is a private entity not subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

GMU Professor Bethany Letiecq, president of GMU’s AAUP chapter, expressed her concern to The Post, noting that “I feel like the public — faculty, staff, students and the larger public — has the right to know about the kind of money that’s coming into the university, so that you can track how that money is being spent, and what kind of influences those dollars are having at the university.” To that end, FIRE’s own model open records legislation would require public institutions to disclose “the date, amount, and administrative conditions of any grant or donation received,” while protecting academic research, scholarship, and grant applications.

In a statement, John Hardin, director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, wrote that it “was not unusual for universities to offer donors this type of input at the time — and, especially where named and chaired professorships are being created, this is still something that many universities do today.” Hardin stated that while the agreements “did allow us to have a say in recommending candidates who were considered for the faculty positions we supported,” they “did not allow us to cause the university to hire certain professors, nor did they allow us to make decisions regarding the curricula or research that professors pursued.”

Nevertheless, Hardin states that the foundation no longer incorporates these terms into grant agreements “because they were unnecessary given the high quality of candidates the universities we support attracted without our involvement, and we realized they could easily be used to mischaracterize our intent.” As Inside Higher Ed reports, the foundation has published the template agreement it currently uses for university donees. (FIRE receives funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. FIRE does not accept money from donors who seek to alter our mission or interfere with our case work.)

In an email sent to faculty last Friday, GMU President Ángel Cabrera acknowledged that “a number of gift agreements that were accepted by the university between 2003 and 2011 . . . raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters.” While these agreements “did not give donors control over academic decisions, and all but the earliest of these agreements explicitly stated that the final say in all faculty appointments lies in university procedures,” Cabrera concluded that they “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”

Cabrera, who became GMU’s president in 2012, explained what he says is the university’s current policy: “As I have stated before, gifts may be earmarked for programs, scholarships or faculty support, but donors may not determine what is taught, what student is funded, or what professor is hired. If these terms are not acceptable to donors, the gifts are kindly declined.”

The Chronicle reports that Cabrera told faculty in an email last night that he had requested a review of “all active donor agreements supporting faculty positions throughout the university to ensure that they do not grant donors undue influence in academic matters.” He also ordered a review of the university’s gift-acceptance policies and said that one gift agreement that is still active would be voided and the remaining $67,935 would be transferred to the university for “general support.”

FIRE will continue to monitor developments at GMU. As Greg said in 2008: “While I have no doubt that donors — and universities themselves — do often favor certain particular sets of ideological beliefs over others, universities have a responsibility to do their best to make sure they maintain their role as a true marketplace of ideas.”

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