It took nearly a dozen meetings, four months and the careful deliberation of professors and administrators.
George Mason University’s review of philanthropic giving sought to evaluate whether gifts to the public institution came with the taint of influence — and what could be done to ensure that future donations arrive with no strings attached. It was prompted by Mason President Ángel Cabrera, who announced in the spring that some financial gift agreements did not meet his standards of academic independence.
Now that the investigation is complete — after finding no “egregious practices,” a committee recommended increasing faculty involvement and encouraging transparency — the school confronts complex questions.
How will it work to implement the panel’s recommendations? And can Mason, so recently besieged with concerns about academic integrity, position itself as a model for other institutions?
“We have attention,” said Keith Renshaw, chair of George Mason University’s Faculty Senate and a member of the committee that scrutinized the 300 donor agreements. “For better or worse. People are paying attention to how we’re handling the situation, which gives us the opportunity to be a leading example, because we’ve already got the spotlight on us.”
Private funding in public education can be a complicated topic, touching on broad concerns about academic freedom, transparency and an institution’s relationship with those who offer financial support. At Mason, the issue garnered attention in part because of the involvement of the Charles Koch Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to the school.
Koch, a billionaire industrialist, is a backer of conservative political causes and a major donor in higher education. His relationship with George Mason had been questioned before, including 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.
The most recent controversy — the “problematic” agreements Cabrera acknowledged this past spring — was related to funding from the Koch Foundation, among other donors. The pacts, reached before Cabrera became president in 2012, did not give donors control over academic decisions, he said at the time, but still fell short of his expectations.
The gifts supported economics faculty positions, Cabrera said. Documents obtained by The Washington Post showed that, in some cases, committees that helped select professors included members designated by a donor.
All of the agreements, which were accepted between 2003 and 2011, had expired except one, and the donor for the lone active agreement agreed to void it. Still, the disclosure prompted difficult questions about the recruitment of faculty members and the economics department.
In interviews conducted earlier this year, some professors dismissed suggestions that they were inappropriately influenced by donors or their money.
Economics professor John V.C. Nye said the recruiting process at Mason did not differ from what he experienced at other schools. Another professor, Chris Coyne, said he never experienced donor pressure.
“I have had complete freedom to pursue the research I find of interest,” Coyne wrote in an email. “I also have complete ownership over designing and teaching my assigned courses and mentoring graduate students.”
After he was hired, Coyne said, he met a donor once a year. The conversation, he wrote, was “casual and open-ended.” If donors have been happy with his work, he wrote, it is because they liked the projects he took on through independent decisions.
Nye said in an email that he has engaged in heated — but productive — discussions with a donor and that he never thought anyone at Mason interfered in his work.
Another donor whose name appeared on the agreements that Cabrera deemed as “problematic” was Menlo Smith, a retired chief executive of a candy manufacturer. Contacted earlier this year, Smith seemed unaware of the controversy brewing in Northern Virginia. He had not been following the issue, he said, adding that he tries to keep a low profile.
He could, though, recall the day he got a telephone call from the university asking about a professor the school was trying to recruit. Smith didn’t know the educator, Russ Roberts, but the university hoped Smith could “give him a little encouragement” to come to the school. So Smith reached out.
“I liked what he had to say and the things that he wanted to teach,” Smith said.
Roberts eventually agreed to go to George Mason. And Smith “agreed to provide some funding to get him there.”
The university knew what Smith was interested in, he said, and flagged professor candidates if their interests aligned. He met “irregularly” with professors he helped bring to George Mason, he said.
“I have never told anyone what they should teach,” Smith said. “I have made it possible for a few to teach what they wanted to teach, because it coincided with my own views on things.”
Roberts, who has moved to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said George Mason had — and still does have — an “incredible collection of eclectic thinkers,” who were predominantly free-market oriented. He thrived there, he said, though he also said he was initially concerned about entering an environment with so many colleagues whose views were similar to his own. Roberts had tenure at Mason and did not feel pressure to write, think or teach in a way that would earn him the approval of a donor, he said.
“George Mason is a very unusual place, the economics department,” he said. “Most of the people there happen to be free-market oriented, which is very unusual, but they are, strangely enough, a very diverse group. They’re just not diverse on that dimension.”
The review Renshaw and other committee members embarked on covered pacts that are still active and that underwrite faculty positions. It also included an examination of university policies on philanthropic giving. The report, released Wednesday, flagged language in 29 agreements for further consideration.
In an email about the review sent to Mason faculty and staff, Cabrera vowed to work with university officials to evaluate the recommendations put forth in the report.
“We still have to see how this plays out,” Renshaw said. “And we’ll be monitoring that over the next several months. We’ll be engaged with the administration to try to see what changes are happening, what are they moving forward with, in terms of these recommendations. But so far . . . I’m feeling encouraged.”
It was important to recognize that philanthropy is complicated, said Mason Provost S. David Wu. The institution must maintain academic independence, respect donors, sort through transparency questions and figure out how to engage faculty members in discussions about gifts.
“A lot of these are very complex issues,” Wu said. “We had, actually, a lot of fun debating some of these issues. Some of them are very much philosophical issues.”
But Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor at Mason, raised concerns about the limited scope of the probe and its findings. The review appeared to reveal concerns similar to those flagged as “problematic” by Cabrera months ago, said Letiecq, president of Mason’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
“Clearly, there were academic violations, and the university must respond to ensure you know to uphold the public trust,” she said.
Faculty members are concerned about the reputation of the institution, said Letiecq, and the perception that they have “been sold to the highest bidder.”
“I think that continues,” she said. “The administration has a lot of work to do to show, through transparency, how they’re making progress to changing their policies and practices.”