A welcome guest column appeared today in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by John Watkins, emeritus law professor at the University of Arkansas.
He comments, not flatteringly, on the atmosphere of secrecy that exists at UA, fostered by Chancellor David Gearhart. Watkins notes that Gearhart’s previous experience included a stint at Penn State, which enjoyed near total exemption from open government laws in that state.
The crux of Watkins’ piece happens to echo something I’ve said here again and again. Brilliant fellow.
A part of the problem is the university’s use of private organizations, the UA Foundation (“a major player in the fund-raising scandal”) and Razorback Foundation, to finance signifcant parts of the school. They claim exemption from the FOI, though they are clearly intertwined with the university and, in the case of the Razorback Foundation, depend directly on publicly paid employees to handle the mechanics necessary to put fans in high-priced seats that pump money into foundation coffers.
Watkins, who literally wrote the book on Arkansas FOI law, comments:
Consequently, an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act is necessary to extend the act to the UA Foundation, as well as the Razorback Foundation and foundations at other state universities.
The Nevada public-records act is a helpful model. It provides in part that “records of a governmental entity, the contents of which are not otherwise declared by law to be confidential, must be open … to inspection by any person.”
The term “governmental entity” expressly includes “a university foundation,” which is defined in another statute to mean a nonprofit corporation or charitable organization that is created under state law, exempt from federal taxation, and “organized and operated primarily for the purpose of fundraising in support of a university, state college or a community college.”
The latter statute also addresses donor privacy, an issue of major concern to university administrators. It provides that a university foundation “is not required to disclose the name of any contributor or potential contributor to the university foundation, the amount of his or her contribution or any information which may reveal or lead to the discovery of his or her identity.” All other foundation records, however, are subject to inspection under the public-records act.
Nevada did this 20 years ago. The vice capital of America is 20 years ahead of Arkansas in providing full accountability at its universities. The UA successfully cultivated the old Democratic power structure for years. Recent events suggest the new Republican majority might not feel so beholden, though several of them are plunked in low-cost preferred seats at Razorback games (plus preferred parking), the kind of corrupt favoritism by which UA wins friends and influences the legislature.