A panel that reviewed philanthropic giving at George Mason University following the discovery of problematic financial pacts is recommending increased faculty involvement and transparency in a report released Wednesday.
Although the committee did not find any “egregious practices” in its examination of more than 300 donor agreements, it highlighted language in 29 documents for further review, the report said. The review was focused on donor agreements that are still active and that underwrite faculty positions. The committee’s investigation also sought to ensure there was no inappropriate influence on academic affairs.
“The committee did identify some issues that require further action and policy improvements, including the need for further consideration of the implications of certain gift agreement provisions,” it said.
In an email sent to faculty and staff, GMU President Ángel Cabrera pledged to "identify specific changes that will strengthen our gift acceptance policies and bolster transparency.”
“It bears repeating that transparency and trust are essential to our mission," he wrote. "I appreciate everyone’s support in continuing to make that our standard.”
In a telephone interview, Cabrera said that if language was flagged in an agreement during the review process, it did not necessarily mean there was a problem, but rather that the document was considered more closely.
“It didn’t mean that those were bad agreements," he said. "It was 29 that needed to be discussed.”
GMU’s ties with donors — especially its relationship with the controversial Charles Koch Foundation — were thrust into the spotlight in April, when Cabrera announced that some financial gift agreements accepted by the public institution in Northern Virginia did not meet his standards of academic independence.
Those agreements did not give donors control over academic decisions, he said at the time, but still fell short of his expectations. Those pacts, accepted by GMU between 2003 and 2011, supported faculty positions in economics. All had expired except one, and the donor for the lone active agreement agreed to void the pact.
Agreements obtained by The Washington Post showed that, in some cases, committees that helped select professors included members designated by a donor.
Cabrera has been GMU’s president since 2012, so the agreements initially called into question were reached before he arrived. He announced the review of agreements that support faculty positions this spring, saying the university would take “swift and transparent corrective action" if officials found issues with active agreements or policies.
“I am fully committed to transparency and to the principle of academic independence," Cabrera said Wednesday. “And if there’s any questions, we’ll do whatever we need to do to clear those questions.”
The committee that reviewed the donor agreements met 11 times from June through September, GMU’s provost, S. David Wu, said a letter to Cabrera.
Its recommendations included creating a list of “conditions for gifts agreements that require additional reviews, based on specific flags and threshold levels." It also recommended that the university encourage transparency “at all levels and by all parties” during the gift acceptance process, and increase faculty representation on a gift acceptance committee.
“Our clear and strong consensus is that, with regard to all gifts made in support of the university, we must pledge to assure transparency, academic independence, and public trust,” the report states.
Keith Renshaw, a GMU faculty member who sat on the committee, said it was reassuring the probe did not unearth serious violations of academic freedom.
“I do think that we identified some language that’s probably not at all uncommon in gift agreements, but that we, I think, as a university, would like to strengthen and set some policies forward so that it’s a lot clearer what goes into these," said Renshaw, who is chair of the Faculty Senate at GMU.
The process revealed the complexities of philanthropy in higher education, Renshaw said. It became clear that gift agreements can take considerable time to draft and involve multiple parties.
“It’s hard to know who said what and which part came from where," he said. “So what we want to try to do is offer a lot more straightforward guidance in terms of what’s okay what’s not okay to have in there.”
Cabrera’s spring announcement about troubling agreements was related to funding from other donors in addition to the Charles Koch Foundation. Koch, a billionaire industrialist and backer of conservative political causes, is a major donor to universities. At GMU and on other college campuses, concerns have been raised about whether the foundation’s generosity comes with constraints on academic freedom.
The Koch Foundation’s relationship with GMU has garnered attention before — perhaps most notably in 2016, when $10 million from the foundation was among the gifts that led the university to rename its law school for Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice.
Concern about the Koch Foundation, private donors and institutional transparency were also at the center of a legal challenge that played out in Fairfax County Circuit Court earlier this year. A student group, Transparent GMU, sued the George Mason University Foundation as it pushed for access to private donor agreements.
A judge in July ruled against Transparent GMU in the court case, ruling that the foundation is not a public body, and therefore not subject to public records laws.