On Tuesday morning, not far from Fairfax County Circuit Court, a small group gathered, some donning gold and green buttons, some carrying handmade signs. They stood with a banner that read, “Protect public ed not private interests,” and they listened as Elizabeth Mathews spoke.
Not long after she spoke, proceedings for a lawsuit against the George Mason University Foundation began in the courthouse nearby. A student group called Transparent GMU, which Mathews belongs to, filed the suit, as it continued to seek access to private donor agreements.
The case examines whether the George Mason University Foundation is a public body. It is about open records, although those calling for release of the agreements say it is about far more than that. Transparent GMU has been seeking agreements that involve Charles Koch and the Koch family. Koch is a billionaire industrialist who is a prominent backer of conservative political causes and a major donor to universities.
Some at George Mason, and at other campuses in the United States, have raised concerns about whether generosity from the Charles Koch Foundation constrains academic freedom.
“We are here for the public good, not to serve the interests of a few,” said Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor of human development and family science at George Mason. “We should be protecting that fervently. For me, that’s at the heart of this.”
After a recent gift from the Koch foundation, George Mason President Ángel Cabrera acknowledged that donations from the conservative philanthropists draw scrutiny but stressed his — and the school’s — commitment to maintaining a firewall between donors and professors.
“I feel compelled to once again affirm that all gifts accepted by the university, including this one, are strictly compliant with our principles of academic independence,” Cabrera said.
Tuesday’s proceedings before Judge John Tran unfolded in a crowded courtroom, where both sides laid out their positions.
Transparent GMU’s attorney argued that the George Mason University Foundation is an entity of the university, and performs a university function. The foundation’s management of private funds is a form of public business, Transparent GMU maintains.
Attorneys for the foundation argued that it is private, and not part of the public school. As such, it is not subject to Virginia’s public records laws, they say.
“The foundation is a private nonprofit entity that is not exercising any type of delegated government power or function,” said Sean Murphy, an attorney for the George Mason University Foundation. “And if it isn’t, that means it’s not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”
Tuesday’s court date followed a 2017 records request from Transparent GMU seeking documents that involved the Charles Koch Foundation, among others. Transparent GMU wants the gift agreements so it can see the terms of the donations, said Gus Thomson, a junior at George Mason and a student leader in Transparent GMU.
“This is really important for public accountability,” he said. “When we have public institutions, and donors want to give private philanthropy, the public has the right to know how that money can be spent.”
IRS records show the Charles Koch Foundation has directed millions to the George Mason University Foundation in recent years. The Koch Foundation’s ties to George Mason drew attention in 2016, when $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation was among the gifts that led the university to rename its law school for deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
In March, George Mason announced a $5 million Koch Foundation donation to the economics department that will be used to create three faculty positions. Those types of gifts raise concerns for faculty members such as Letiecq, who said she was worried about whether the money would end up changing the school.
“We are a public university,” she said. “I feel like the public — faculty, staff, students and the larger public — has the right to know about the kind of money that’s coming into the university, so that you can track how that money is being spent, and what kind of influences those dollars are having at the university.”
George Mason released the agreement for the $5 million gift.
John Hardin, the Koch Foundation’s director of university relations, said donations from the nonprofit are used to fulfill the ambitions of faculty members and students. Gifts are rooted in the foundation’s support for the vision set forth by a school, student or faculty member, he said.
“They each have an interest, a desire, a vision, a passion, something they want to accomplish, something that they have proposed and have requested that we provide financial support, so that they can pursue it,” Hardin said. “Our expectation, our hope, is that by providing that financial support, they’re able to realize that vision or that interest.”
George Mason spokesman Michael Sandler said philanthropists have the right to request anonymity when they make donations, and the school says the George Mason University Foundation is a separate and independent entity. Philanthropy is critical to the future of universities, especially as states wrestle with challenging funding issues for higher education, Sandler said.
“The university is very fortunate to have a good relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation,” he said. “The foundation has generously supported the university’s expansion of scholarships, of faculty positions, of programs that help Mason educate more students and hire more faculty.”
Sandler said he was aware that concerns have been raised about the gifts and that some are wary of Koch’s personal politics, but the school spokesman said Koch’s foundation has been supportive of the university’s views on academic freedom and independence.
“Our relationship with the foundation is built on a shared belief in the importance of open inquiry, and all of our gift agreements with our donors, including the Charles Koch Foundation, reflect these values,” he said.
Thomson, the George Mason junior and a leader in Transparent GMU, described Tuesday’s trial, which has concluded, as a major milestone. It was unclear when the judge will rule.
“I don’t really think it should have been a fight,” Thomson said. “This material is, in my opinion, plainly something the public should have access to, and be able to review and scrutinize and criticize, if necessary.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.