A One-On-One with Transparent GMU

Photo courtesy of Transparent GMU

Student organization continues to fight Koch influence during the 2018-2019 school year


With the start of a new school year comes the revving up of Transparent GMU. The student organization is dedicated to understanding and addressing the influence of donations on Mason’s administration and faculty.

The most notable of Mason’s donor agreements is between Mason and the Charles Koch Foundation, an organization known for its large contributions to right-leaning political campaigns, universities, and think tanks.

It appears that financial contributions to Mason can come with contracts giving donors influence over faculty selection processes, including the hiring of professors.

“Right now, we’re focusing on highlighting the issues with corporations getting to dictate what is happening at an institution through private donor agreements,” said Janine Gaspari, president of Transparent GMU and a senior at Mason. “We’re working to combat the corporatization of education, focusing specifically on donor agreements with strings attached to them.”

Transparent GMU is involved in a lawsuit against Mason to allow donor agreement information to be accessible through the Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit, which was decided in Mason’s favor in a Virginia circuit court in 2017, is going through an appeal process to be tried in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“I think that it’s absolutely inappropriate,” Gaspari said, “for a university to be withholding information that impacts what happens to the students and faculty. The university influences what happens in national policy, influences what happens in global policy, so really Mason has a duty to be transparent in order to let people be informed and make informed decisions.”

Initial efforts by students and faculty to access information about donor influence were met with pushback from Mason’s administration.

“Back in 2014,” Gaspari recalled, “students were asking to meet with administrators and were continually trying to file FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests and … not getting answers.”

For Transparent GMU, Gaspari said, “The dream scenario … is to have any and all donor agreements coming into the university … published on a universally accessible database, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask, because it’s influencing what’s happening at a public institution.”

The issue received attention in 2016, when Mason’s law school was renamed Antonin Scalia Law School due in part to donor influence.

The connection between Mason and the Charles Koch Foundation is beginning to garner national recognition. Several news outlets, most recently The Intercept, have published pieces on the foundation’s influence on campus.

Mason is not the only school to receive funding from the Charles Koch Foundation; other significant recipients include the College of Charleston and Florida State University, as well as dozens of other schools around the country.