Friday, March 22, 2019

George Mason donor-contract disclosure case will be heard by the Virginia Supreme Court (Michael Simkovic)

A student group, Transparent GMU, has sued the George Mason University Foundation to try to force disclosure of donor contracts with the the Charles Koch Foundation and other conservative billionaire-backed foundations and re-granting organizations. 

George Mason is a public university.  A limited number of George Mason's donor contracts have already been disclosed.  Some of these contracts gave donors an inappropriate degree of influence which critics say may have politicized research.  However, contracts between donors and the George Mason University Foundation are at issue in the lawsuit.

A law clinic unofficially affiliated with George Mason University actively harassed climate scientists because of their research on global warming.  The clinic was led by a George Mason adjunct, staffed by George Mason students who received academic credit through a law-school-approved externship program, funded by donor groups similar to those supporting the law school, and named after George Mason, but was not officially part of the law school or under the control of its dean. 

The ultimate identity of many donors to George Mason and embedded think tanks and foundations on campus remains shrouded in mystery because of the use of re-granting organizations and donor-advised funds, but there are links to a group of prominent and politically powerful conservative billionaire families.

The George Mason University Foundation won the disclosure case at the circuit court level, but the case is now heading to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The case could have important implications for many universities who have received substantial donations from donors with strong ideological views. Public universities could be especially vulnerable to disclosure lawsuits.  

The advocacy group UnKoch my campus, which seeks to promote academic freedom and integrity by limiting donor control over university research, and the AAUP have developed kits to help universities ethically accept donations without impinging on academic freedom and academic integrity.  Some prominent conservative donors to law schools and universities, such as the Olin Foundation, have excellent reputations for respecting academic freedom. 

According to Conservative Transparency's data (see also here, here, and here), leading university and college recipients of donations from conservative groups include:

Of the leading 5 academic recipients from conservative donors, only George Mason is a public university.  Leading public university recipients include University of Oklahoma, Michigan State, the University of Virginia School of Law, and the University of Arkansas.

I am not aware of any database that tracks donations from ideologically left-wing groups.   If readers know of such a database, please direct me to it and I will update this post to include a list of leading recipients from liberal groups.   

Some critics worry that UnKoch myCampus's tactics at times might go too far and could make colleges and universities reluctant to accept funding that supports rigorous, unbiased, and non-ideological research which happens to be funded by conservative groups.

Updated 3/26/2019:  This article has been corrected to note that Transparent GMU, and not UnKoch myCampus, is the party to the lawsuit seeking disclosure and that the George Mason University Foundation, rather than George Mason University, is the defendant.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic | Permalink