Transparent GMU, a group of George Mason University students, is suing the institution to obtain grant and gift agreements between private donors and the George Mason University Foundation. They’re concerned about the university’s ties to the Charles Koch Foundation, which has donated heavily to their campus and whose previous donation to Florida State University raised concerns about influence over hiring and curriculum decisions. Transparent GMU filed a public records request for copies of relevant agreements, but the university claimed those documents fall outside the scope of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
“We believe the public has a right to know the details of our university’s operations, including its relationship with private donors,” student Gus Thomson said in a statement. The foundation “is doing work for our public school, so it should be held to the same disclosure standards as the university itself.”
Evan Johns, the students’ attorney, said the law “simply does not allow a public university to conceal its records by outsourcing its public business to a private company.”
Michael Sandler, university spokesperson, said via email that gifts come through the institution's foundation, a nonprofit organization "exempt from Virginia public records laws. Donors have the right to request anonymity. And the university and foundation have a responsibility to respect the privacy of those donors. The state recognizes this. If not for the support of private gifts, many of our students would not have the opportunity of higher education. And many of our researchers wouldn’t be able to pursue their work without that support, either.”
UnKoch My Campus, a group fighting donor influence in academe, has previously argued that a gift, according to federal tax regulations, is defined as an “irrevocable donation made without expectation of exchange for anything of significant commercial value.” Yet a 2016 donation from the Koch foundation, related to renaming George Mason’s law school after late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, says that if the institution doesn’t live up to various provisions, the Koch foundation can end the agreement and demand the return of all unexpended funds.