The University of Arkansas says it is a secret who’s been invited, other than university employees, to the gala tonight at UA to begin a major fund drive.
I’d written earlier that UA had said it would not release a guest list for the $450,000 dinner at which 400 special guests will be thanked for past giving and encouraged to give more.
I made a formal FOI request . My response from UA spokesman Mark Rushing:
Attached is the University’s response to your public records request for “the guest list to the gala Friday night.” Information regarding current donors and prospective supporters of the University has been redacted, pursuant to the competitive advantage exemption of the Arkansas FOIA, Ark. Code Ann. §25-19-105(b)(9)(a). Release of this information could prove harmful to the U of A and advantageous to other organizations seeking similar financial support. In addition, the names of student volunteers and guests have been redacted as protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Legal minds greater than mine (now-federal Judge Leon Holmes for one) have taken great exception to the UA’s long-held position that revealing anything about fund-raising would put the university at a competitive advantage. That part of the FOI law was written to protect private businesses working with government, not to protect government. The UA also laughably misinterprets the FERPA.
But that’s what they do. Presumably they’ll use face-obscuring software should any of the promised video from tonight’s gala stray from designed university speakers to the big shots in the crowd. Is there a secret tunnel entrance to the event so the fat cats may avoid paparazzi? We’ll see.
There’s an important point here and it’s not about dinner guests. The university trades many things for money. Sometimes it’s merely a name on a building (why isn’t that protected under the FOI, now that I think about it?) Sometimes it’s much more, such as the UA’s agreement to set up an arm aimed at the destruction of our democratic public education system in return for Walton millions. Rich people get more consideration than the public from UA. Always have. Accountability suffers. Remember the Advancement Division scandal? Looks like the new broom didn’t sweep the place clean.
UPDATE AND CORRECTION: I have misinterpreted or at least misunderstood previous remarks about videos at the gala. (Alas, no sneak peaks of fat cats are likely.) A note from Rushing explains, along with a defense of UA actions. Before printing it, let me say that I prompted the creation of the FOI exception for “competitive advantage” with a lawsuit over Arkansas Industrial Development Commission records. The law was passed to protect private business information it might receive in the course of seeking outside investment, not to protect UA dinner guests.
Let me offer some clarification about videos being shown at the event. The university has pre-produced some video interviews to be shown at the gala but there are no plans to show any video from the event. We do plan to make some of the video interviews or portions of them available to the public in the future. We will seek the permission of any benefactors or students shown in those videos before they are released. We do not publicize philanthropy without the express consent of the donor – and this includes placing names on buildings.
The university follows the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act in regards to providing public records. There aren’t many things that are exempt from disclosure under the Arkansas FOIA statute but the exemptions are there for good reason and exist whether you agree with them or not. To insinuate that any of those decisions are based on some sort of directive from university leadership is misguided. We simply follow the law. We believe it would harm the University in competing for scarce philanthropic dollars to release the additional material you are seeking. This is a valid concern for the University as we enter into a major capital campaign designed to enhance the University’s ability to serve students (especially low-income students) and carry out research that will benefit all Arkansans.