UBF should open its books

Published May 1, 2014

To the Editor:

The UB Foundation (UBF) manages a portfolio worth nearly a billion dollars. It derives from UB’s endowment, individual and corporate contributions, revenues from university-affiliated entities and mandatory fees levied on university activities. In an October 2013 meeting with the UB Faculty Senate, UBF Director Edward Schneider said the UBF follows the UB administration’s yearly spending plans, and that “These plans should be available from the university leadership.”

Accordingly, in November, the Faculty Senate asked that “the president and administration of the University at Buffalo make available the budget of the UBF and its associated foundations as if it were subject to FOIL.” In a March letter to the chair of the UB Faculty Senate, President Tripathi said the UBF budget is outside his “purview” as UB president. He told the Faculty Senate Executive Committee that he does not have the legal authority to force the UBF to open its books. According to one executive committee member, UB English Professor Kenneth Dauber, President Tripathi added that he would not even request them to do so.

This nimble maneuver leaves two questions unanswered. First, it may be true that, as a UBF trustee, President Tripathi cannot unilaterally release its copies of the yearly spending plan. But President Tripathi, working as a New York State civil servant, plans how the university spends unrestricted UBF funds. So how can he refuse to share this spending plan with the people who pay him to draw it up, the citizens of New York?”

Second, if he refuses to deliver the UBF spending plans after the Faculty Senate’s collegial request, will he also refuse a FOIL request? UB Law Professor Martha McCluskey has commented, “As a public official, President Tripathi has the legal authority (and presumably the legal duty) to open records of UB’s crucial decisions about UBF money to the Faculty Senate and to the public.”

The debate over transparency at shadowy university foundations extends beyond UB. In 2011, after two scandals, California established a sweeping transparency law for all its college and university foundations. In 2012, the statewide SUNY Research Foundation, which is tasked to support scientific research, reversed its long-standing policy and agreed it is subject to New York State’s FOIL laws.

A comptroller’s audit had found serious abuses, including $130,000 for international travel and purchase of personal items like computers, an iPad and groceries by a Buffalo State official and his wife, and thousands for the SUNY Chancellor’s club memberships and bar tabs. In 2011, Research Foundation President John O’Connor resigned after revelations that he had given a no-show job to the daughter of then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. The SUNY Research Foundation is now subject to FOIL.

Last November, the president of SUNY Upstate Medical Center resigned after news broke that corporate sources had supplemented his income through a non-transparent “chief administrative officers fund.”

Federal and state investigations are underway. There are bills in both the Senate and the Assembly that would make university foundations subject to FOIL — just as the UB Faculty Senate has recommended. They are currently stalled, partly because these very foundations, including the UBF, have paid lobbyists to fight them.

Closer to home, in 2010, the board of a UBF affiliate organization awarded an eight-figure contract to a local building firm. Its CEO was the son of one board member, the brother of another. The same year, another affiliate made illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of Erie County Executive Chris Collins, threatening the non-profit status of the university endowment.

In 2009, that UBF affiliate awarded a bonus of $225,560 to UB President John B. Simpson. In FY 2011-12, it awarded him $286,472, ostensibly for working 40 hours a week, though he had already left state employment. More than a year after UB shut down its Shale Resources and Society Institute, we still do not know if it used the UBF or one of its affiliates to hide corporate contributions that might have compromised its academic integrity by nudging it to provide pro-hydrofracking propaganda. We do know that the Shale Institute offered corporate contributors the opportunity to shape its agenda, and that one UB professor associated with it referred to its prospective UBF budget as a “slush fund.”

Financial conflicts of interest, illegal campaign contributions, political lobbying, corporate-style bonuses and golden handshakes, and suspicions of academic integrity corrupted by secret corporate money: This is what we have to fear from a lack of transparency at the UBF. The New York State Senate and Assembly higher education subcommittees are trying to make university foundations  subject to the Freedom of Information Law. The UB Faculty Senate has requested the same thing. Foundations have vital work to do in the modern university. The UB Foundation will be able to do that work better if the lights are on.

James Holstun

Professor of English