In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, we’ve endured a well-organized effort to roll back freedom of information laws. Now we are confronted with a nonprofit fundraising arm of a public university that insists it should be cloaked in secrecy, even as it bankrolls the salaries and activities of leading public officials.
At a hearing of the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee last week, UConn officials argued yet again that the University of Connecticut Foundation should remain exempt from the state’s freedom-of-information laws.
Their argument went something like this: if the foundation’s books are open, or if the foundation has to answer inconvenient questions from the curious, donors will flee the ship, scared to death that their contributions will be unmasked to the public.
“As someone who has given significantly to UConn for more than a decade, I can attest to the fact that treating the foundation like a state agency will deter people like me from giving,” said foundation board member and donor Daniel Toscano. “Even if that is not your intention, I can assure you that it will be perceived very negatively by the very people you want and need to support this great institution.”
My state representative, Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, who chairs the higher ed panel, rightly characterized Toscano’s words as “a good scare tactic.” Touché, Roberta. People will say the darndest things when their interests are threatened. Take package store lobbyist Carroll Hughes, who said last week (evidently with a straight face) that half of Connecticut’s liquor stores would be forced to close if the state stopped protecting them with an indefensible price-fixing scheme.
Boohoo. The UConn Foundation, which manages hundreds of millions of dollars, is its own worst enemy. There would be few calls for transparency if the foundation hadn’t made so many questionable grants over the years.
Last year, the foundation paid likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton more than $250,000 to speak to the UConn student body. Two years ago it paid $660,000 in cash to buy a house in Hartford’s West End for UConn President Susan Herbst to wine and dine major donors. And the foundation paid for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to attend fancy-pants economic summits in Davos, Switzerland, and in China.
“The foundation really could be considered the functional equivalent of a government organization,” Willis observed, hitting the bull’s eye once again.
Plus, Willis added, while the foundation serves a governmental function by giving out scholarships to students, it also receives funding from the state and was created by officials in state government. In other words, it quacks like a government duck.
Lest anyone think we’re alone in having a shadowy government-supported foundation that pays for things that might be embarrassing to fund directly through the government itself, look no farther than our neighbors to the west.
The State University of New York Research Foundation, another creepy quasi-public arm of a state university system, has had similar problems, paying a pricey Wall Street law firm more than $900,000 to investigate a scandal with the SUNY-Binghampton men’s basketball team, even as the SUNY chancellor was billing the foundation almost $30,000 for booze and a private club membership.
Like the UConn Foundation, the SUNY Foundation has resisted strong oversight, conducts its business out of the public eye and insists it is exempt from freedom-of-information law. This is shocking for an organization that in 2011 received almost a billion dollars from the state and federal governments.
Now back to the scare tactics. The claims made by UConn Foundation officials that disclosure of contributors will “have a chilling effect” among legions of major donors is baloney.
I worked in educational fundraising for nine years. The vast majority of donors want to be recognized for their contributions. That’s why naming opportunities and annual reports were created. If donors who give to the UConn Foundation don’t want others to know about their philanthropy and refuse to give again as a result of transparency, then maybe the foundation will have to cut out paying for Malloy’s travel, Hillary’s speeches or raises and fancy houses for Herbst.
Memo to the UConn Foundation: If you don’t want to open your doors to public scrutiny, then stop acting like a slush fund for items the government would be ashamed to pay for. It’s that simple.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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