The College Donor Digest

GMU Under Fire: Donor Intent vs. Academic Freedom

July 10, 2018 | Joe DeGraff

A high-profile donor intent case continues to draw headlines this month. Just last week, a Virginia judge ruled against a student-led group, Transparent GMU, which sued the George Mason University (GMU) Foundation in an effort to access donor agreements and private correspondence between the Foundation and private donors.

The student group filed the lawsuit following a Virginia Freedom of Information Request, which led to the publication of grant agreements and internal correspondence between the GMU Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation dating from 2003 to 2011. The student group argues that the Koch Foundation had improper say in the hiring and performance evaluations of faculty, which constitutes an attack on intellectual freedom.

After the agreements were made public, GMU’s president Ángel Cabrera instructed his administration to conduct a thorough review of all gift agreements, but also gave a strong defense of donor intent and academic freedom: “ . . . colleges must balance the benefits of good donor stewardship with the need to preserve the academic freedom and decision-making independence of the faculty.” The Koch Foundation responded by releasing a statement affirming its commitment to academic integrity and  intellectual freedom, and published its updated grant agreements with the GMU Foundation from 2016 and 2018 that do not contain the controversial restrictions.

There are many legitimate avenues for donors to shape their gifts while preserving academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The Fund for Academic Renewal (FAR) helps donors build oversight terms into a gift agreement, including regular reports, site visits, and donor representation on faculty selection committees. With these stipulations in place, donors can be confident that their gifts will be properly administered without overstepping necessary boundaries.

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The Fund for Academic Renewal is a program of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions to FAR are fully tax-deductible to the maximum extent provided by law.