The Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would make the UConn Foundation, the private nonprofit fundraising organization for the university, subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act requires state agencies to disclose their records to the public upon request. This bill would treat the UConn Foundation as a quasi-government agency and require it to disclose its financial records if requested. Several foundation board members testified at a legislative hearing last week that subjecting the Foundation to the FOIA would “have a chilling effect” on future donations even if donor’s names were kept anonymous according to The Hartford Courant. In this case, the public interest in the transparency of an organization so intimately connected with a state university outweighs these concerns.
The Foundation members argued that protecting donor anonymity by screening out names in FOIA requests would not be a sufficient safeguard to prevent the reduction in donations the legislation would cause. They explained that allowing the records to be public would make donors worry the state will rely on the Foundation to replace state funding. There are some concerns with this argument. The state is already aware of the amount of Foundation donations. It is unclear how revealing the records of the Foundation to the public would lead the state to rely more heavily on Foundation donations.
Some actions of the UConn Foundation make the case for transparency especially strong. Last year, the Foundation paid Hillary Clinton $251,250, to speak at the university, an action some see as an unofficial campaign donation. The Foundation spent about $700,000 to provide UConn President Susan Herbst with a Hartford mansion to use when she had business in the capital. The Foundation has allocated $300,000 to increase Herbst’s salary. An organization that contributes to a university president’s salary and provides that president with a Hartford mansion is not fully private. The Foundation has become directly connected with the university administration.
This is further evident in the relationship between UConn and the Foundation. The university appropriates funds for the Foundation and a number of university officials sit on the Foundation’s Board of Directors. The Foundation has become so intimately connected with the UConn administration that it has become a quasi-public institution.
Many fear that the private nature of the Foundation allows university officials to spend money in ways that the state would view as inappropriate by conducting it through the Foundation. This is why the Foundation should be subjected to the FOIA. It is vital to ensure that university administrators are held accountable and spend money in a manner appropriate for their position. Any “chilling effect” does not hold up against this concern.