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George Mason’s president calls for donor agreement review after ‘problematic’ discovery

The statue of George Mason at George Mason University in 2015.  (Pete Marovich For The Washington Post)

The president of George Mason University has called for a review of active financial gift agreements that support faculty positions, days after acknowledging that some of arrangements did not meet academic independence standards.

“Given the discovery of problematic gift agreements . . . I have requested a thorough review of all active donor agreements supporting faculty positions throughout the university to ensure that they do not grant donors undue influence in academic matters,” George Mason President Ángel Cabrera wrote Monday night in an email to the university’s faculty and staff.

Cabrera said that he wanted to ensure that the university’s polices and practices provided strong protection for its academic independence. He said that if officials did find active agreements or flag policies that compromise that independence, the university would take “swift and transparent corrective action.” He did not specify what that action would be.

University officials had not decided how the review would be conducted, George Mason spokesman Michael Sandler said Tuesday.

“This is going to be a collaborative process where faculty is brought in, and at some point, we’ll know who is leading it, and that will be clear,” he said. “But we’re in the process now of talking with faculty about how this is going to look and what this is going to be.”

George Mason president: Some donations ‘fall short’ of academic standards

Monday’s email from Cabrera followed a note sent days earlier, in which the university president said some financial gift agreements that had been accepted by George Mason “fall short of the standards of academic independence” and raised questions about donor influence.

The acknowledgment came as some at George Mason have pushed for greater transparency surrounding private donors, an effort that has been focused on the school’s ties to billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, a backer of conservative political causes and a major donor to universities.

Cabrera on Friday did not indicate which gift agreements were troubling, but a George Mason spokesman confirmed that the email was related to funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, among other donors.

“The agreements did not give donors control over academic decisions, and all but the earliest of these agreements explicitly stated that the final say in all faculty appointments lies in university procedures,” Cabrera wrote on Friday. “Yet these agreements fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”

Those gifts agreements, accepted by George Mason between 2003 and 2011, supported faculty positions in economics and “granted donors some participation in faculty selection and evaluation,” he said. All of the agreements except one had expired, he wrote.

On Monday, Cabrera said the donor for that lone agreement had agreed to void it and allow the remaining money that had been pledged, about $68,000, to transfer to George Mason for “general support.” Cabrera has been president at George Mason since 2012, so the agreements he mentioned in his email on Friday were reached before his arrival.

On Tuesday, Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor of human development and family science at George Mason, called Cabrera’s response to the matter “woefully inadequate, given the severity of the breaches of trust.”

“He really needs to do quite a bit more to satisfy the faculty, students and the public at large,” said Letiecq, who is president of George Mason’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

All gift agreements at George Mason should be made public, “so that we can fully discern the extent of the breach,” Letiecq said. “Where is this going on? How many faculty are involved? How many different entities and different donors are involved?”

The Washington Post on Friday night obtained a batch of agreements from a George Mason spokesman. Several of those agreements involve the Mercatus Center, a free-market research group that is based at the university but is an independent organization.

The scrutiny at George Mason has been unfolding at the same time as a legal challenge from Transparent GMU, a student group that has been seeking access to private donor agreements. Transparent GMU has sued the George Mason University Foundation in a case that explores whether that foundation is a public body.

George Mason gets Koch money. Now, this group wants to know more.

The matter in Fairfax County Circuit Court was still pending Tuesday, said Samantha Parsons, who is an alum of George Mason and a staff member of UnKoch My Campus, an organization that focuses on the Koch family and its influence on higher education.

Parsons said she was “troubled” by Cabrera’s announcement of a review, because he has previously said that there were not problems with donor agreements.

“President Cabrera should not have been able to give those assurances if he had not already reviewed these gift agreements,” Parsons said. “The fact that he’s now calling for a review proves that he commented, or gave faculty and students assurances, when he actually had not done due diligence to look into the agreements already.”

In 2016, the Koch Foundation’s ties to George Mason garnered attention when $10 million from the 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. That is a gift that Chris Kennedy, an associate professor in the environmental science and policy department at the university, believes George Mason should reject.

“There should be a moratorium on gifts from any donor that is associated with any troubling language in a gift agreement, any gift from these donors that is restricted in nature,” he said.

Kennedy, who is a member of the Faculty Senate at George Mason, said it would be fine if those donors wanted to contribute to the university’s general fund.

“If their charitable intent is in line with the purpose of our university, they should still be willing to do so,” he said. “But given what’s been revealed, they shouldn’t be able to direct their funds to any unit at the university for the foreseeable future. That’s my personal opinion.”

Concerns about Koch funding are not unique to George Mason. On college campuses across the country, others have questioned whether generosity from the foundation constrains academic freedom.

The Charles Koch Foundation on Friday addressed questions about grant agreements involving George Mason that were reached from 2006 to 2009. In a letter published online, John Hardin, the foundation’s director of university relations, wrote that the agreements have “evolved over time.”

“These old grant agreements at George Mason University did not allow us to cause the university to hire certain professors, nor did they allow us to make decisions regarding the curricula or research that professors pursued,” Hardin said in the letter. “These agreements did allow us to have a say in recommending candidates who were considered for the faculty positions we supported.”

The foundation does not enter into donor agreements with that level of input anymore, he wrote.

“To be clear, we champion academic freedom and do not seek to influence the hiring practices of university departments nor have input on curricular or research decisions,” he wrote.