All future private gift agreements signed by George Mason University officials will now be treated as public records subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Presented to the GMU Board of Visitors on May 2, the revised gift acceptance policy aims to create more transparency and establish a more robust vetting process around financial gifts given to the public university by private donors.

Mason previously housed agreements with private donors under the George Mason University Foundation, a private non-stock corporation charged with soliciting, managing, investing, and administering private gifts on the university’s behalf.

A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge ruled on July 5, 2018 that, as a separate, private entity, the GMU Foundation is not under the purview of FOIA, which governs citizens’ access to public records.

In addition to making future gift agreements public records, the new gift acceptance policy places specific conditions on the types of donations that Mason will accept while tightening the university’s process for reviewing and approving private gifts.

“This is a major win for the public good,” GMU human development and family science associate professor Bethany Letiecq said. “It would not have been possible without the dedication and sacrifice of the students, faculty, and members of the community who came together to advance accountability on campus.”

As a faculty senator and president of GMU’s American Association of University Professors chapter, Letiecq was part of a six-person gift acceptance policy implementation task force that provided guidance to administrators as they revised the policy that outlines the university’s processes regarding private philanthropy.

The GMU Faculty Senate nominated Letiecq and AAUP GMU vice president Betsy DeMulder on Mar. 6 as the faculty’s two representatives on the task force, which included GMU Provost David Wu, Faculty Senate Chair Keith Renshaw, Vice President of Advancement and Alumni Relations Trishana Bowden, and Associate Vice President for Advancement Relations Kathleen Diemer.

The gift acceptance policy implementation task force presented a final draft of the revised policy to the faculty senate during its Apr. 24 meeting, and the new rules took effect after the Board of Visitors reviewed them on Thursday.

“I think it’s an amazing achievement,” Sarah Ahn, a junior at Mason and member of the student organization Transparent GMU, said. “There are a lot more safety measures to ensure that our university is going to take donor agreements more seriously, and I really appreciate that.”

Formed in 2014 to advocate for more donor transparency at Mason, Transparent GMU sued the university and GMU Foundation in 2017 after students’ requests for access to gift agreements with the nonprofit Charles Koch Foundation were denied.

Represented in court for a one-day trial on Apr. 25, 2018 by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Transparent GMU argued that GMU Foundation should be subject to FOIA since it conducts business on behalf of a public institution and its records are of public interest.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge John M. Tran ultimately ruled in the GMU Foundation’s favor, but the Virginia Supreme Court granted Transparent GMU’s request for an appeal on Mar. 12 after the group presented its case before a writ panel of three justices in Richmond.

While the Supreme Court is not expected to hear the appeal until this summer, student advocacy around private gifts to their university has already produced some tangible results over the past year.

Mason President Ángel Cabrera admitted in an email to faculty on Apr. 27, 2018 that some of the university’s past gift agreements with private donors fell short of standards for academic independence and called for a full review of all active gift agreements three days later.

Led by Wu, the gift agreements internal review committee released a report on Oct. 9 that found no “egregious practices” but recommended policy improvements to more closely align the university’s existing policy with accepted best practices.

Wu incorporated many of those recommendations, including language clarifying which gifts are required to undergo additional review by Mason’s gift acceptance committee, into a draft policy that he presented to the Board of Visitors on Feb. 27.

The revised policy states that Mason will not accept any gifts that interfere with its academic freedom or university operations, contain discriminatory restrictions, presume or require “a particular result or conclusion of scholarly work,” impede free inquiry and scholarly activities, give donor influence over personnel employment, convey “a benefit to the donor” rather than the public, or are otherwise inconsistent or detrimental to the university’s mission.

Under the new University Policy 1123, gifts would have to be reviewed and approved by GMU’s gift acceptance committee if they meet certain conditions, including gifts of $500,000 or more, ones paid out over more than five years, gifts that may draw significant public attention, gifts attached to naming opportunities, and gifts that might “have real or apparent conflicts of interest for the donor or university officers.”

For all gifts with conditions governing the use of the funds, Mason is required to provide a written agreement to the GMU Foundation detailing its acceptance of those conditions. The new policy dictates that those agreements will be public records of the university subject to FOIA.

For anonymous gifts of $100,000 or more, GMU’s president, provost, and vice president for university advancement and alumni relations must be aware of the donor’s identity and agree to accept the gift on condition of anonymity.

“The revisions are the culmination of a year-long effort initiated by President Cabrera,” GMU spokesperson Michael Sandler said. “…The revisions presented this week reflect the work of the [internal review] committee and ensure the university’s commitment to academic freedom and transparency.”

As part of the revised policy, Mason’s gift acceptance committee has been expanded to allow for two additional faculty representatives, giving the faculty three representatives in all, a move that Letiecq praises as a “significant advancement in shared governance.”

“The new policy establishes a new level of oversight over gift acceptance procedures to ensure the university upholds its commitments to academic freedom and academic independence,” Letiecq said. “The gift acceptance committee is now clearly a public body and will make its work products…available to the public for scrutiny.”

Because the revised policy applies only to future gift agreements, the past agreements sought by Transparent GMU will still not be made public unless the group prevails in its Supreme Court appeal.

Ahn, who will become acting president of Transparent GMU in the fall semester, says the revised gift acceptance policy is a positive step forward for Mason in terms of ensuring academic independence, but students must stay vigilant in holding their university accountable.

“It is a crucial step, yes, but it is important that we still keep track of what’s happening when it comes to donor agreements,” Ahn said.

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