Columns » Max Brantley

State university secrets

Today's subject: lack of accountability at state universities.

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Today's subject: lack of accountability at state universities.

It's not a new complaint. Years ago, the University of Arkansas refused to reveal what promises it made to get a $300 million gift from the Walton family. Part of the deal, it seems clear, was the university unit that serves as a propaganda mill for the Waltons' "school reform" agenda.

Fundraising for UA, and particularly for athletics, has long been conducted behind the shroud of private foundations, which claim exemption from the state Freedom of Information Act. Recent events provide further illustration.

The University of Arkansas says it has a donor interested in underwriting research in cyberterrorism. The UA won't reveal the donor or what strings might be attached to the gift. What could be wrong with researching cyberterrorism? Maybe nothing. But it also might be a pretext to get university support for a project that aids private business or even for some controversial type of research. The university promises any proposal would be reviewed, including by the university board of trustees. That's not an automatic comfort. The UA board is a highly political group, now firmly in the control of a rigidly ideological governor.

The secrecy can get silly. The UA refused, for example, to give me a guest list to its recent $450,000 gala to begin a billion-dollar-fundraising campaign. Then it allowed a reporter for the state's largest newspaper to attend the event and she produced a society page spread with photos of the people the UA wouldn't identify for me.

The UA cited, as it always does, an irrelevant bit of state law — passed to protect private business records in the hands of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. It exempts from disclosure information that would "give advantage to competitors or bidders." UA contends even revealing the name of donors would harm the university's ability to compete for gifts and would disclose "craft knowledge developed by the university." What? The menu?

The erosion of accountability at universities isn't restricted to UA. There's also the University of Central Arkansas. I've been interested recently in the high profile being established by a unit of UCA known as the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics. It is purely ideological and stocked with academics schooled at Koch-favored institutions. Its founding documents indicate it was established to address a "paternalistic, over-regulated, expansive tax-and-transfer expenditure state."

When I asked UCA President Tom Courtway about it, he defended a free discussion of all views. But that free discussion doesn't include disclosure of the ideologues who've provided the money to operate the unit. The contributions are passed through the UCA Foundation — providing donors with both a tax deduction and secrecy. People on campus know who they are. They just won't say. The head of the center claims all are Arkansas business people, though Koch footprints are evident in emails I've seen.

This is a bad way to run a university. Some universities — very rich ones mostly — won't accept gifts with too many strings. But, at a minimum, the agenda-setters should be exposed to sunlight. At least the Walton name is plastered all over its propaganda unit in Fayetteville.

This is important. These hobby horses of the wealthy carry the brand of a university and whatever honor that might attach when the hired hands write op-eds and testify before the legislature and state agencies, such as the state Board of Education. Of course they are entitled to their opinions. But Courtway's defense of the open forum is a little disingenuous, given the absence of a Daddy Warbucks for countervailing views at UA or UCA.

I'm biting a hand at UCA that actually feeds a hobby horse of my own: corporate welfare. The center has produced a steady stream criticism of passing out tax money to private businesses in the name of economic development. Yes, even people who agree with me should be held accountable.

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