University foundation agrees to operate in the sunshine

GEORGIA — The University of Georgia Foundation agreed to comply with the state open-meetings law in March, avoiding litigation threatened by state Attorney General Thurbert Baker if the foundation failed to do so.

Lynda Courts, chairwoman of the University of Georgia Foundation, wrote a letter to Baker March 9 stating the board “will conduct all meetings … of its Board of Trustees and its Executive Committee in accordance with the terms of the [Open Meetings] Act.”

“[The foundation’s decision] marks a recognition that all of the state’s business, regardless of how controversial it may be, should be conducted in full view of the public,” Baker said.

The University of Georgia Foundation is a private corporation in charge of raising money for the public university system. 

The calls for foundation openness began when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and several citizens filed complaints with Baker’s office, claiming the foundation board’s Feb. 13 meeting violated Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.

The foundation board entered into private session to discuss the salary of Michael Adams, president of the University of Georgia. Because the foundation contributes money to Adams’ salary, the board cited an exemption in the state open-meetings law that allows it to hold private meetings if the board is discussing matters of employee compensation.

But Baker previously advised the foundation that Adams is an employee of the University System of Georgia, not the University of Georgia Foundation. 

In a Feb. 26 letter to Courts, Baker reiterated this position and gave the foundation 15 days to agree to stop erroneously citing the employee compensation exemption and to promise to fully comply with open-government law in the future.

“The very foundation of good government is directly dependent upon a practice and belief in open government,” Baker wrote in the letter.

State Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, also put pressure on the foundation by introducing a Senate resolution March 2 urging university foundations to act more transparently. 

Secrecy in university foundations has gained more media attention in recent years, said Charles Davis, an associate professor and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

“[Openness] is incredibly important because typically where there is secrecy, there is greater tendency toward corruption. It creates all the right conditions for corruption,” Davis said.

Foundations’ status as what Davis calls “quasi-public” institutions also should lend them to more oversight, he said.

“[University foundations] are not purely private institutions. They are affecting policies and procedures within public institutions …. A purely private foundation would raise money from private sources and spend it on private affairs. They don’t do that,” Davis said.