The Bulletin

FOIA Council will study bill that creates rules for disclosing conditions of university donations

By: - May 8, 2019 11:00 pm

The Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council will study a bill that would require universities to share the terms and conditions of donations from private entities.

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, introduced House Bill 2386 to create firm rules on when donors to public colleges and universities can be anonymous; what donor information isn’t subject to the FOIA law and requiring universities (not their fundraising foundations) to keep a document of any terms and conditions attached to donations, which would then make it subject to FOIA.

The bill was left in a House committee this year.

The idea came from an ongoing court case between a group of George Mason University students and the school. The students wanted to see documents that detailed the Koch Foundation’s donations to the school’s foundation. The George Mason University Foundation, which accepts and manages donations for the school, denied the request, saying it was separate from the university and not subject to FOIA.

The Virginia Supreme Court took up the case.

GMU has since changed some of its own policies, Bulova said, which he used as a model in his legislation. But every school has a different process and there are no minimum requirements from the state.

“Once I threw that bill in, I was approached by a number of Virginia’s universities, not surprisingly, who all talked about or provided me information about their gift agreement policies,” Bulova said. “At least in principle, they agreed with what I was trying to accomplish, their concern was they wanted to make sure the language was right so as not to scare off potential donors.”

The advisory council will consider the best language for the bill. Bulova encouraged members not to wait until the court makes a decision, which could render some of the bill unnecessary.

Members didn’t have much to say on the bill during their quarterly meeting on Wednesday. Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, wanted clarification on whether individual donors to foundations would be disclosed under Bulova’s legislation. They wouldn’t.

Elizabeth Hooper, director of state government affairs at Virginia Tech, told the FOIA Advisory Council donations “will never not have terms,” but that doesn’t mean it’s sinister. Donors may give under conditions like specifying which department or program the money should go toward.

“I do have concerns that you shouldn’t be able to stay anonymous if the terms and conditions associated with that donor affects the academic decision-making process,” Bulova said. “People have the right to know who is making those decisions.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.