The Iowa State University Foundation is covered by state open-records laws that require the release of many documents, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court found that there is "an elaborate contractual arrangement" between the Iowa Board of Regents and the foundation and that the two entities have "a highly interwoven and symbiotic relationship." As a result, the court ruled, "the foundation is performing a government function in both a theoretical and a factual sense."
Iowa State, like many public colleges, has a foundation to manage its fund raising. Many states have seen disputes over whether such foundations are covered by state open-access laws, and since those are state laws, rulings have varied.
In Iowa, the Supreme Court's ruling Friday overturned a ruling by a lower court that found that the foundation was a private entity. The foundation has argued that it is sufficiently separate from the university that the open-records laws should not apply. The lawsuit originated in a dispute over how the university and the foundation used a donation of a farm.
On Friday, the foundation issued a statement saying that it was "committed to remaining accountable to our numerous stakeholders while protecting the confidentiality expected by our donors, and we believe that those open records confidentiality provisions will maintain our donors' privacy."
The foundation also released a list of questions and answers about the ruling. That list noted that the court's ruling did not outline which foundation records would be considered confidential under the exemptions to Iowa's open-records laws. The foundation believes that many donor records are covered by that exemption, the statement says, and "the ISU Foundation remains resolute in our belief that upholding donor privacy is an ethical obligation, and we will work steadfastly to continue to protect the personal and financial information of all benefactors who support Iowa State University."
While the ruling focused on Iowa State University, the court's analysis described the types of relationships that exist at most public universities with foundations. Officials at the University of Iowa Foundation said Friday that they were studying the ruling.
The Des Moines Register on Saturday published an editorial praising the decision, saying: "Donors have a right to know whether their gifts are being used as specified. The public has a right to know whether university actions are being influenced by strings donors attach. It would be wrong for public foundations to become secret hiding places for public money and private influence."