Flickr / Tracy O
Our Talking Heads blogger questions UT's refusal to share information about the university's donors.
In an attempt to better understand who is financing our university, The Horn recently filed an open records request with UT to obtain information about recent, major donations it has received. For legal reasons, this request was denied. But it did get us thinking: How come?
Donors play an important role in supporting the University. Last fiscal year, UT received $175 million in gifts. This paid the salaries of endowed professors and financed some student scholarships among other things. To put this in perspective, the total amount of financial gifts the University received last year could have almost paid for the health benefits for all qualified UT employees ($176 million). And that’s not counting the donations received toward its eight-year, $3 billion capital campaign.
Clearly, donors’ contributions shape a lot about students’ experience at UT. We should be grateful for how much support our alumni and others give to our University in order to help pay for the stuff we all take for granted. But because of its increasing importance, we believe that this information should be public record. And it likely would be were it not for a very specific exception carved out for Texas universities in the public information statues.
The bit of legalese the UT finance department mentioned in their refusal is as follows:
To be clear, we understand why a university might want to keep this sort of information private. Some donors could be disinclined to give money, because they don’t want public acknowledgment or for their Aggie friends to find out what they’ve done. Also, other non-profits and businesses hungry for investors are sure to mine that list for any sort of extra capital they can find.
However, these consequences are outweighed by the need for the public to understand all the forces at play in its institutions of higher education. Also these potential side effects could be somewhat mitigated with a few relatively easy policy solutions.
First off, public records request could only pertain to certain donors over a certain dollar amount for the year. It’s hard to say where that threshold should be without having more information about UT’s donors, but it should be high enough so that the smaller, middle-class donor can avoid public scrutiny. The point of public disclosure is to find out who really has the power of the purse, not to see if a Texas Exes member paid his or her dues that month.
Also, the statute could be amended to provide stiff penalties for any group that uses the universities’ donor lists as a springboard for their own fundraising campaigns. A similar rule is in place for open records requests for student email addresses. If any recipient of student email addresses sends out a mass message as a result of receiving that information, they could be subject to fines and other legal consequences.
Admittedly, this is a bit of a pipe dream right now. Texas’ universities have a vested interest in keeping this information from the public, and they usually get what they want from the Legislature. However, it seems at least a conversation about whether or not this serves the public interest is in order. There’s literally billions of dollars passing hands here and it’s about time taxpayers and tuition-payers got a better sense of who else is signing the checks that shape our University’s financial future.