A lawsuit filed by George Mason University students seeking more transparency from private donors to their school has made its way to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The Commonwealth’s highest court granted an appeal to Transparent GMU on Mar. 12 after members of the student group went down to Richmond for a writ panel, where they observed oral arguments presided over by a panel of three justices.
The Supreme Court’s approval of the students’ request for an appeal breathes new life into a case that has potentially major implications for the disclosure of information about public higher education funding and the relationship between public institutions and affiliated private entities.
A date for the appeal hearing has not been set yet, though Mason student and Transparent GMU member Gus Thomson says he expects that it will be held this summer.
“I think it’s exciting, and I’m really excited to see this case go forward,” Thomson said. “…It’s a huge deal to go forward like this.”
It has been more than two years since Transparent GMU first sued GMU and the George Mason University Foundation, a private non-stock corporation that solicits, manages, and administers private donations on the university’s behalf.
The student group filed a lawsuit on Feb. 9, 2017 after the university and foundation denied its Virginia Freedom of Information Act requests looking to obtain gift agreements detailing the terms and conditions around the acceptance of donations from the Koch Foundation, a nonprofit that gives financial grants to higher education institutions.
The Koch Foundation has regularly contributed to George Mason since its first donation in 1985 brought the Mercatus Center, an economics-focused think tank, to the university’s Arlington campus. The Scalia Law School and Schar School of Policy and Government have also been recent recipients of grants from the Koch Foundation.
Founded in 2014, Transparent GMU advocates for greater donor transparency out of concern that the existing gift acceptance process allows outside private groups like the Koch Foundation to influence the university’s academic activities, including faculty hiring and curriculum.
Represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates staff attorney Evan Johns, Transparent GMU has argued that students have a right to access gift agreements between a public university and private donors, because they affect the business of a public institution.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates has a strict policy against commenting on pending litigation and, as a result, is unable to openly address its appeal to the Supreme Court, Johns says.
George Mason has denied Transparent GMU’s repeated FOIA requests on the grounds that the documents they seek are held by the foundation, which is not subject to FOIA laws because it is a private entity.
The initial lawsuit named GMU as a defendant along with the GMU Foundation, but Fairfax Circuit Court Judge John M. Tran dismissed the university as a defendant on Nov. 29, 2017 during pre-trial motions, because it does not possess the records in question.
After the case appeared in Fairfax County Circuit Court on Apr. 24, 2018, Tran ruled in the foundation’s favor on July 5 with a decision affirming the private body’s autonomy from the public university that benefits from its activities.
George Mason University declined to comment on the news that the Virginia Supreme Court had picked up Transparent GMU’s case.
“The lawsuit is an active legal matter, and our practice is not to comment on active legal matters,” GMU director of communications Michael Sandler said.
The nonprofit UnKoch My Campus, which opposes corporate and private interests in public education, expressed its support of Transparent GMU as the group prepares for the Supreme Court.
“The public has a legal right to access details related to the private funding supporting their public education,” UnKoch My Campus co-founder and former Transparent GMU president Samantha Parsons said. “I am very happy to hear that the Supreme Court is taking on the students’ case.”