OP-ED: UConn Foundation Can’t Pass Legal Test To Keep Secrecy – Hartford Courant

State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, appears to have found the decisive argument for making the University of Connecticut Foundation subject to our freedom of information laws.

Willis, who is co-chairman of the Higher Education Committee, asked at a recent hearing whether the foundation should be subject to the 35-year-old state supreme court ruling in Board of Trustees of Woodstock Academy v. Freedom of Information Commission. “The precise question posed by this case,” said the court, is “whether a nominally private corporation which serves a public function may be considered a public agency for purposes of the FOIA.”

The court, in saying yes, used a “functional equivalent test”: 1) whether the entity performs a governmental function; 2) the level of government funding; 3) the extent of government involvement or regulation; and 4) whether the entity was created by the government.

The court also has ruled that all four criteria are not necessary for a finding of “functional equivalence.”

Former UConn President Homer Babbidge, in a letter to Alumni President Carl Nielsen in 1964, proposed the creation of the University of Connecticut Foundation and suggested that the Alumni Association earmark $5,000 toward the establishment of a foundation. Babbidge joined the foundation board, as did L. Richard Belden, a member of the General Assembly.

The Master Agreement of 1994 states: “The university designated the foundation to assume primary responsibility for the university’s development efforts.”

You can read on the foundation’s website today that it “operates exclusively to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut. As the primary fund-raising vehicle to solicit and administer private gifts and grants which will enhance the University’s mission, the Foundation supports the University’s pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, and public service.”

It seems to me that if it quacks like a duck it is a duck; that the foundation meets enough of the Woodstock criteria to be subject to the FOI laws.

Foundation officials testified at the committee hearing Feb. 26 that donations must remain secret or people wouldn’t donate. Yet at the top of the foundation’s website you can click on “Donor Recognition” where you find this:

“Public Recognition — Founders Society — The Founders Society honors UConn’s most generous benefactors: individuals and couples who have made significant contributions for the advancement of UConn’s educational and research programs. Donors become Founders Society members when they reach a level of $100,000 cumulative lifetime commitment to UConn. Members are publicly recognized as top donors to UConn, listed in an annual printed list distributed to all members, and included as special guests at events during the year.

“Charles Lewis Beach Society — Donors who make provisions for the Foundation in their wills or other planned gifts are named members of the Charles Lewis Beach Society. Members receive invitations to exclusive events, including a special luncheon each June.

“Leadership Annual Giving — … We are pleased to recognize annual donors whose generous contributions signify an investment in UConn’s growth and continuing ascent among the nation’s best public universities.”

If the legislature decides to allow donors, at their request, to remain private, that is one thing; but it is no reason to keep the foundation outside our FOI laws. After all, it is all about our premiere public university.

James H. Smith is president of the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.