Issues found with transparency, academic freedom and outside party influence
BY JACK HARVEY STAFF WRITER
Mason’s gift agreements raise “some degree of concern,” according to a recent report.
The Internal Review Committee was established to review the language of donor agreements supporting faculty positions at Mason. The committee released its findings to the public on Oct. 8.
The report examined 314 gift agreements that the committee considered “in-scope.” Of those, 29 were described as having “some issues that require further action.” These issues were related to academic freedom, outside party influence and transparency.
Dr. Bethany Letiecq, a member of the Faculty Senate and the ad hoc Institutional Conflict of Interest Committee, outlined her concerns and the specific problems she found in the report.
Gift agreement 41 stated, “The purpose of the FUND is to produce academic-quality research related to important issues identified by the DONOR and others, and to disseminate that research to relevant state, regional and national policymakers as well as media, teachers and the general public.”
Gift agreement 226 counted among its goals to “create field contacts and presence within the conservative policy and grassroots communities, focused on clean energy solutions.”
A condition of this agreement was that the donors receive a report featuring “a description of the progress that Awardee has made toward achieving the purposes for which this award was made,” as well as “a report on Awardee’s compliance with the terms of this Agreement.”
Should the awardee underperform, the foundation “reserves the right to renegotiate, extend or terminate this Agreement.”
“Awardee” refers to the George Mason University Foundation, the private entity that handles gifts to Mason.
“Donors want to get something for their investment, it seems, but the university should work to clarify what they can expect and what they cannot expect, particularly when it comes to research production,” Dr. Letiecq said. “If you think my research is bought and sold, then you wouldn’t trust me … If we don’t have academic integrity as an institution, we are not an institution of higher education. We’re just another think tank.”
Despite these concerns, the report states that the committee “found no egregious practices.”
Asked to comment on the distinction between “issues” and “egregious practices,” Provost David Wu responded, “Most of these agreements that we have seen, the 29 that we have identified, raise some degree of concern based on the eight criteria that we have established … There are some questions that were raised, but certainly nothing that we would consider a serious infringement of some of these standards that we have established.”
Gus Thomson of Mason’s student activist group Transparent GMU said in an email, “Transparent GMU disagrees that the committee’s review revealed nothing egregious … These are severe violations of academic freedom and faculty governance.”
Committee member Dr. Chris Kennedy cautioned that Mason’s increasing reliance on private donor funding, combined with decreasing state funding, could lead to serious concerns down the road.
Provost Wu said that, following the report, “The next step is for us (GMU Foundation, Provost’s office, Faculty Senate) to work together in essentially going through these policy recommendations and looking for changes or amendments to university policy … A lot of the existing policy language is silent on these issues.”
Asked about a possible database of all gift agreements, Wu responded, “The committee’s recommendation was basically to make all the provisions of future gifts public as soon as these gift agreements are made.”
Wu did not believe that a database containing verbatim gift agreements, even if redacted, would be possible, citing privacy concerns.