FAIRFAX (AP) A judge is weighing whether to force a Virginia university’s philanthropic arm to disclose details of its relationship with the conservative Charles Koch Foundation.
The foundation gives tens of millions of dollars annually to universities all over the country, but no school has received more Koch money than Fairfax-based George Mason University, which has gained a reputation as a conservative powerhouse in law and free-market economic thought.
A student-led group, Transparent GMU, has been seeking details of the school’s donor agreements with the foundation. Some students are concerned the Koch money comes with strings attached.
The trial began April 24 in Fairfax County Circuit Court. It centers on whether the George Mason University Foundation, a separate corporate entity from the university itself, is subject to the state’s freedom-of-information laws.
Samantha Parsons, a former GMU student who for years has been active in raising concerns about the Koch Foundation’s influence, said awareness among the student body has increased tenfold since 2016, when the school named its law school for conservative jurist Antonin Scalia in conjunction with a $10 million Koch Foundation donation.
“The name change is a consequence of a bigger issue — donors buying control over the university,” said Parsons, who has since graduated and now works for an activist group, UnKoch My Campus, which calls attention to donations made to universities by the Koch Foundation.
About 25 students, faculty and others rallied at the courthouse before the trial, asserting that Koch money represents a danger to the university’s academic freedom. Many of those students then filled the courtroom. Judge John Tran applauded the students for their activism. After both sides made their closing arguments, Tran took the case under advisement and said he will issue a ruling at a later date.
University officials have said in the past that receipt of Koch funds does not influence how or what the school teaches.
A university spokesman did not return an email seeking comment.
At the trial, lawyers for the GMU Foundation argued the foundation does not perform any duties that warrant public oversight or allow members of the public to make requests of it through the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
“We are not a public body,” said GMU Foundation lawyer Robert Hodges.
The university itself was dismissed from the lawsuit after it argued that it didn’t have any of the donor agreements in its possession, because they are held by the GMU Foundation.
Transparent GMU’s lawyer, Evan Johns, argued that the GMU Foundation works hand-in-hand with the school, and that by managing the school’s fundraising and relationships with private donors it is in fact carrying out a core function of the university and should be subject the Freedom of Information Act just like any other state agency.
-MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press
Updated April 24 to add details.