A Hard-Fought Win for Transparency at GMU

by Bethany Letiecq, Samantha Parsons, and Gus Thomson

May 10, 2019

First published in Academe Blog

We did it! We organized. We educated. We advocated. And with student activism, solidarity, and a collaborative spirit, we collectively achieved a huge victory for transparency at George Mason University (GMU).

Last week, Provost Wu announced at our GMU Faculty Senate meeting that we will institute a new gift acceptance policy at our institution that will garner significantly more donor transparency and shed much needed sunlight on gifts and pledges at Mason. Indeed, going forward, all gift agreements will now be housed by the University and will be subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Our new policy also reconfigures our Gift Acceptance Committee (GAC) as a public body and will include more faculty to reflect a model of shared governance. The GAC will now publish its meeting minutes (including the terms and conditions of accepted gifts and pledges) on an accessible website for public review.

These changes will allow the public to scrutinize gift agreements and more easily follow the money as it flows from the GMU Foundation (GMUF) to the university. But this didn’t happen overnight or because the administration was keen to undertake this work.

Eight years ago, faculty and students at GMU became increasingly concerned about undue donor influence and the academic capture of institutions of higher education by financial donors.  At the time, Jane Mayer had written an exposé connecting Charles and David Koch and their “dark money” network to GMU. With their millions of dollars of restricted gifts and involvement in faculty hiring and scholarships targeting the GMU Law School and economics department, the Koch brothers and their libertarian network of donors appeared to have captured both units, which are now fully staffed by faculty who espouse libertarian and free market ideology.

Calls by faculty and student activists to inspect the gift agreements between the Koch Network of donors, the GMUF, and GMU went largely ignored for years. Out of frustration, the student group Transparent GMU, led by Gus Thomson, sued the GMUF and GMU to gain access to the gift agreements. The faculty at GMU reestablished its chapter of the AAUP and began building a campaign for transparency. And at the national level, UnKoch My Campus inspired a nationwide movement to uncover undue donor influence of the Koch brothers and their network members across institutions of higher education. You can learn more about the advocacy campaign for GMU by reading Bethany Letiecq’s spring 2019 Academe article, “George Mason University’s Donor Problem and the Fight for Transparency.”

All of these efforts came to a head one year ago when tainted gift agreements surfaced at GMU. Because of the lawsuit, GMU was forced to review its donor files across campus, which resulted in their finding and releasing a series of gift agreements which clearly showed how donors like Charles Koch were given undue influence over academic units and affiliated centers and institutes such as the Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies at Mason. In admitting that the agreements did not uphold standards of academic independence, President Cabrera called for an internal review of the gift agreements held by the GMUF. A limited review found significant violations of academic freedom and academic independence from other donors, too.

In late fall of 2018, based on the recommendations of the internal review and with guidance from GMU Faculty Senate resolutions, GMU’s Provost Wu drafted a new gift acceptance policy. The faculty senate not only reviewed this policy, but called for three faculty senators (including Letiecq and Betsy DeMulder, AAUP chapter leaders) to serve on an implementation committee to finalize the policy and its implementation process. Our work concluded last week with a new model of gift acceptance that we hope will inspire other campuses seeking more transparency and academic independence.

Upon reflection, we could not have achieved this end without the work of the faculty, led by our AAUP chapter and an empowered faculty senate; the courageous advocacy and unrelenting activism of the students, led by Transparent GMU; and the national leadership and movement building led by UnKoch My Campus; and, of course, the AAUP.

A win for the public good sure does feel good!

And as we celebrate this win, we await the conclusion of the TGMU lawsuit, which heads to the Virginia Supreme Court this summer. That court decision will determine if the GMUF is a public body. If found to be a public entity, the GMUF will be forced to produce the extant gift agreements that remain hidden from public view so we can finally know the full extent of donor academic capture at GMU.

We also hope other campuses will celebrate this victory with us by reviewing and updating their own gift acceptance policies and procedures. In January 2019, UnKoch My Campus released a report, Institutional Conflicts of Interest: Model Policies to Protect Against Donor Interference, to help faculty and students jump-start this process. Designed to provide models for ideal policies to protect against interference from private donors, the report includes templates for faculty senate motions; gift acceptance policies; policies related to the approval and oversight of donor-sponsored centers and institutes; and formal disaffiliation from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Photo courtesy of Transparent GMU

Our guest bloggers are Bethany Letiecq, president of the George Mason University chapter of the AAUP; Samantha Parsons, director of campaigns for and co-founder of UnKoch My Campus; and Gus Thomson, an integrative studies major at GMU and member of Transparent GMU.