Florida bill would allow university foundations to discuss donors behind closed doors

FLORIDA — Florida lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow university direct-support organizations, such as foundations, to meet behind closed doors to discuss private donations and research strategies.

The proposal would exempt from public meeting requirements any portion of a meeting when identities of donors or prospective donors, in addition to research planning or proposals, are discussed, according to the bill.

Florida law already allows donors to remain anonymous in public records and auditor reports, said Rep. Cary Pigman, a Republican who is sponsoring the bill, but these meetings are the only “legal venue” for boards to discuss these donors.

In addition, universities sometimes enter into agreements with private entities to conduct research, Pigman said. During discussions about research, these private companies may reveal “proprietary secrets.”

The legislation would give direct-support organizations a place to discuss private donors and research without revealing otherwise exempt information to the public, Pigman said. Records of the meetings would be kept, however.

“The information is not disappeared,” Pigman said. “The information could be findable afterward, subject to a proper authority, the proper judge asking for it.”

The bill cleared a House committee earlier this month; an identical bill also cleared a Senate committee. Republican State Sen. Kelli Stargel, the Senate bill’s sponsor, did not return multiple calls asking for comment.

The sole naysayer in the House was Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Democrat, who said the bill makes too much room for “mischief.”

“The mischief I think it allows for is that a large donor would, in secret conversations, be able to dictate research questions, who’s doing the research, hiring and firing of faculty and maybe requirements of textbooks and readings and that sort of thing,” Rehwinkel Vasilinda said.

It’s not unheard of for that to happen at universities, and if it does, the public ought to know, Rehwinkel Vasilinda said.

“Keeping those discussions secret does not seem to be in the public’s interest,” she said.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda submitted five amendments to the bill to address issues of donor influence on research and university practices, but all of them were rejected, she said.

Florida attorney Thomas Julin echoed Rehwinkel Vasilinda’s concerns, saying the proposal is a “bad thing for Florida.”

“Obviously, donations to university foundations can be a subject of great controversy,” said Julin, an attorney with Hunton & Williams who frequently represents news-media clients. “The source of funds can very much influence the institution.”

Rep. Pigman said that these are legitimate questions about all donations, but donor influence would be “brought to bear” in these cases whether the donor is known or unknown. Members of direct-support organizations are known for their “integrity” and standing in these communities, he said.

“To a certain extent, we do trust the decisions they make to be in the better interest of the university,” Pigman said.

At Florida Atlantic University, Lulu Ramadan, editor-in-chief of the University Press, said the student-run publication, has experienced problems covering the university’s foundation.

The FAU Foundation has moved the time and place of meetings, for example, with no notice to reporters and in violation of state law, Ramadan said. The public should have a right to easily attend these meetings, and this bill is an invitation to “misuse money,” she said.

“Names don’t need to be dropped,” Ramadan said. “It’s more what’s being done with the money.”

Michael Koretzky, a volunteer adviser at the University Press, said anonymous donors with only good intentions exist once “in 1 million years.”

“I wonder how often it’s been used,” he said of Florida’s law that allows donors to remain anonymous. “How many anonymous donors are there? … The donors that don’t want to be known are the ones that are funding specific chairs or research for political reasons.”

What’s also troubling about this bill is that foundations are already only quasi-public, Koretzky said. With states cutting back funding to universities, a lot more weight is on the shoulders of direct-support organizations, he said.

“They’re funding the essentials,” Koretzky said. “Foundations should become more transparent, not less.”

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.