By Kenneth Dauber
Millions of dollars for property whose price was recently thousands. The University of Buffalo’s expenditures on lots for the Medical Campus have provoked controversy. But whether the university’s actions are reckless or wise, the unspoken scandal is that it took the Buffalo News’ investigative journalism to reveal the figures, which the university itself did not reveal.
The problem is the financial arm of the university, the University of Buffalo Foundation (UBF), and the university’s refusal to open up UBF’s books. UBF was created by state law, which permitted SUNY colleges to establish private corporations to manage their assets. The idea was that by transferring those assets to the corporation – their endowments, their real property, the donations they received – the colleges could shield their monies from any callbacks from Albany. But although these corporations act solely on the instruction of the colleges themselves, unlike the colleges they are required to file only a minimum of information about their budgets.
The result is that only the highest level of the university administration has any idea where a substantial portion of the university’s money goes. Not Albany, not SUNY central, not the faculty, not the students, not the public – the citizens and taxpayers of New York.
In such a situation, suspicions abound. Some worry about malfeasance, others about so-called “pay for play.” UBF doles out “top-off” money to some employees, and although salaries at UB are publicly available, these top-offs are not. So money “donated” through UBF by contractors who may be looking for a favor provides a wash of valuable funds.
But the most pervasive problem is that decisions about allocations are never vetted by anybody outside the circle of administration. How much money does UB spend on administration and how much on education? How much on “consulting” and how much on scholarships? We simply don’t know.
In December, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution asking the UB administration to open up the UBF books on the same basis as the books of UB proper. In his response, the president, claiming that “UBF is not within my purview,” although he is a member of both UBF’s Executive Committee and its Compensation Committee, said, and I quote, “No.”
A meeting with the provost yielded little more. The provost said opening the books might violate the privacy of donors who wished to remain anonymous. Members of the Senate replied that UBF could at least publish its expenditures. The provost responded that “you can’t be a little pregnant.”
Kenneth Dauber is a professor of English at the University of Buffalo and chairman of the Faculty Senate Budget Priorities Committee.