What is there to hide?

WHILE most University students probably didn't give much thought to Charlottesville last week, legislators in Richmond decided essentially to close all donor records from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Del. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News, introduced HB 407 at the request of the University's Government Relations Office. As an institution significantly funded by taxpayers and ostensibly committed to educating the public, students and Virginia residents ought to be concerned about the University's desire to withhold information from the public.

On its face, the bill makes of lot of sense. HB 407 allows public institutions to keep donor's social security numbers, e-mail and physical addresses, and other personal information private. That is something the University ought to do for everyone related to it, as noted by Robert Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs.

According to Sweeney, the exemption includes only personal fundraising strategies, wealth assessments of donors and other personal information.

"As you can readily see, we simply asked for legislation that affords our donors the same level of protection on personal family matters that you or your family would expect," Sweeney added.

But the law also allows the University to withhold the amount, date, purpose and terms of the donation as well as the donor's identity, if the donor requests anonymity. This opens the door to a whole host of problems no education-oriented institution, let alone one that receives significant funding from the state, should condone. Imagine a scenario in which a wealthy person's child has an application pending to the University. Upon learning his child has been wait-listed, that person could easily donate an untold sum of money and the public would never know.

Anonymous donors could gain other perks from the University such as advantageous land deals, voices in processes donors shouldn't have a voice in and a whole host of inappropriate behavior the public cannot check.

One might think that things like that could never happen, that the walls between fundraising and admissions are impenetrable and that the University operates with the highest integrity. That line of thinking might be right, and Sweeney said there is a computer firewall between computer systems so that gift data and purchasing data cannot be exchanged, but HB 407 takes away the public's ability to hold the University accountable to these high standards.

Concerns that some donors may not donate unless they are guaranteed anonymity are valid, if one considers only financial issues.

The benefit that one individual's contribution could bring the University is not as important as the benefit the University could have by being completely forthcoming about donors' names and donation amounts. Integrity ought to be worth more than a million dollars any day. In the end, integrity is the sort of worth that will matter most behind our diplomas, not the number of zeros in the University's endowment.

Most other schools in Virginia keep their donor information in the hands of private foundations which are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requirements as the University is. Sweeney noted that "The University is the most open higher education institution in the Commonwealth regarding its donor records." That is laudable, but the University ought to hold itself to higher standards than institutions such as Liberty University or Longwood. The argument that the other kids are doing even worse things probably didn't work with your mother and it shouldn't work here, either. Our academic standards are higher and our standards in business ethics ought to be, too. The fact that other institutions of higher education are also in the wrong does not excuse the University's support of donor secrecy. The taxpayers of Virginia deserve better of our premier state university.

It is true that the state only contributes about eight percent to the University's overall budget, but that still represents a significant sum of taxpayers' money. The University's stated goal has always been to serve the people of Virginia. How well are they being served by an institution which requests to keep information secret?

Donors concerns about being pestered by other philanthropic organizations do not supersede the public's right to knowledge and the University's commitment to transparency. Sweeney said "The ability to provide our donors the assurance that private data about them and their families will be protected from unreasonable disclosure is critical to motivating our alumni and friends to make substantial gifts to the University." Is it really unreasonable that the public would want to know who is giving to a public institution? Do donors really require secrecy to be motivated to give to the University? If that's the case, then how do you explain the billions of dollars donors have already pumped into the University without this provision?

Mr. Jefferson said, "Information is the currency of democracy." His University ought to be ashamed of trying to curb the exchange of that currency in pursuit of a baser sort.

Maggie Thornton is a Cavalier Daily Viewpoint writer.

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