Following an uproar over revelations that Virginia’s largest university allowed the conservative Charles Koch Foundation to give input in some personnel decisions, the school is tightening its rules governing agreements with donors to ensure they don’t infringe on academic freedom.
The changes at George Mason University in Fairfax come after disclosures last year that the Koch Foundation received a say in the hiring and firing of some professors under older donor agreements that provided millions of dollars to the school. University President Angel Cabrera said at the time that the agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”
The new rules implement recommendations made in October after a committee reviewed hundreds of agreements and found nearly 30 containing potentially problematic provisions.
The new rules, approved this week by a task force including members of the administration and the faculty senate, will make it easier for the public to review relevant future agreements. Existing agreements, though, may still be shielded from public review.
The Virginia Supreme Court is taking up arguments later this year on whether past donor agreements are subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The school has argued that those contracts are in possession of the George Mason University foundation, which argues it’s a private organization exempt from the law’s disclosure requirements.
Last year, the Koch Foundation revised its own policies so that all multi-year agreements with universities will be made available to the public.
Bethany Letiecq, a GMU professor who served on the task force and has been critical of the Koch Foundation’s influence in certain departments at the university, said the new rules are not perfect but she believes they represent a good compromise.
“It’s been a really long campaign to reach a new level of transparency,” Letiecq said, noting that some students and faculty had been raising questions about the university’s deal with the Koch Foundation for the better part of a decade. “It’s a real win for the public, and students and faculty.”
Mason Provost S. David Wu said the new rules should take effect after the Board of Visitors is briefed on the changes next month.
He said the new policies will protect academic independence “in a much more clear, explicit manner” than was previously in place.
Mason has been the biggest beneficiary in recent years as the Koch Foundation has increased philanthropy to universities nationwide. The university’s relationship with the Koch Foundation faced increased public scrutiny since 2016, when the law school named itself for late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in conjunction with a $10 million donation from the Koch Foundation and a corresponding $20 million anonymous donation.