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State should require transparency, accountability

You would expect an organization created for public benefit that is largely led by government officials would be obligated to report to the public about its activities. Yet the Research Foundation of the State University of New York and its many campus foundations are not required to do so. Instead, these organizations often cloak their activities in secrecy.

As president of United University Professions, the union representing academic and professional faculty at SUNY's state-operated campuses, I think it's time to let the sun shine in.

It's time to require the SUNY Research Foundation -- as well as the various University at Buffalo foundations -- to be held accountable and to be more transparent.

For years, these foundations have behaved much like shadow government agencies. They typically refuse to provide detailed answers about what they are doing regarding hiring and pay practices. For example, the Research Foundation handles nearly $1 billion in research grants annually from both government and private sources. The foundations have become vehicles for distributing millions of dollars that should be directly targeted to improving the university's academic mission.

The SUNY Research Foundation says its mission is to "support research and discovery at SUNY and sharing of intellectual property for public benefit and economic growth." But how do we know the foundation is properly fulfilling that noble-sounding mission? That's a legitimate question.

Last year, a 90-page study commissioned by SUNY looked at the relationship between SUNY and the Research Foundation. It concluded that the foundation did not act solely as a service organization devoted to SUNY's priorities. "Rather, it aspires to and increasingly does chart its own independent course, regardless of SUNY's views," the study found.

I believe the time has come for the Legislature to intervene. A bill that would require greater accountability and transparency for the SUNY Research Foundation and campus foundations such as those at UB has been introduced in both houses of the Legislature (S.5797/A.7789-E).

The legislation would expand the definition of a state agency to include entities like the Research Foundation and the UB foundations that are affiliated with SUNY or its institutions. That designation would make them subject to the Freedom of Information Law.

Passage of this legislation would ensure that the Research Foundation, which administers more than $1 billion in research each year, and the UB foundations that control close to half a billion dollars, are more open and transparent, thereby serving the best interests of the public.

SUNY has indicated that it, too, supports such a bill in principle.

I encourage state lawmakers to approve this vital piece of legislation.

Phillip H. Smith is president of United University Professions.