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VA Supreme Court Says University Foundations Don’t Have To Disclose Donor Information

George Mason University
A group of students under the name “Transparent GMU” says the George Mason University Foundation must be subject to public records laws because it performs a number of “important public functions” for the university.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday that foundations that serve public colleges and universities don’t have to disclose information about its donors.

A group of George Mason University students filed an open records request in 2017, asking for the terms and conditions GMU agreed to in exchange for accepting donations from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The George Mason Foundation, a private non-profit corporation that manages private gifts for GMU, denied the students’ request, saying it’s not a public body, therefore its records are not subject to Virginia FOIA.

A Fairfax County Circuit Judge agreed with the foundation, ruling in its favor on July 2018.

The students under the name “Transparent GMU” appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that the foundation must be considered a public body, because it performs a number of “important public functions” for the university.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government agrees. She said the foundation impacts the ultimate mission of the university, because the money it raises drives major budget decisions like hiring and real estate acquisition.

“There are all kinds of donors who have put limitations on gifts and it’s important, I think, for the university community, if nobody else, to be able to know what those limitations and restrictions are going to be.”

The Supreme Court ruled Virginia FOIA doesn’t apply to foundations that exist to support colleges and universities and that this is a policy for the General Assembly to consider- not the courts.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.