The University at Buffalo Foundation will not add a faculty member to its board of trustees as a way to address concerns over how the private foundation handles hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of the public university.
The executive committee of the foundation’s board of trustees rejected a request from Dr. Philip L. Glick, chairman of the UB Faculty Senate, for a faculty member, a professional staff member and a student to be added to the board.
Foundation Chairman Francis M. Letro recently informed Glick of the executive committee’s decision. Glick relayed the response to the Faculty Senate executive committee in a meeting last week.
“He said he thought the foundation was sufficiently transparent the way it is,” said Glick, professor of surgery, pediatrics and management at UB.
Letro did not respond to an email asking for his comments.
But UB President Satish K. Tripathi, who serves on the foundation board, said that adding a faculty member, a staff member and a student to the board wouldn’t make sense because there is supposed to be a “firewall” between the foundation and the university.
Also this week, United University Professions, the union that represents faculty on 29 state-operated campus of the State University of New York, including UB, pledged to push for new legislation that would make campus foundations subject to oversight by the state Comptroller’s Office.
“People are looking for any way to get some transparency, some visibility, just to crack the window open a little bit,” said Frederick E. Kowal, UUP president. “No one really knows where the money is going. There’s no oversight.”
UUP has long pushed for greater transparency from campus foundations, including backing legislation that would have made them subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
The alleged bid-rigging scandal involving the Buffalo Billion and a subsidiary arm of SUNY Polytechnic Institute that controlled the purse strings for the $750 million RiverBend project in South Buffalo have made the issue more urgent, said Kowal.
“We have an opportunity now to make some changes,” he said. “We need to know where the money is going. Especially at a time when SUNY has been underfunded by the state, those foundations can serve an important role, but we need to know that they are indeed serving that role.”
Last April, Tripathi wrote a letter to the university community seeking to clarify how the UB Foundation functions and defending its transparency as “consistent with and modeled after best practices in a national context.” He also wrote that the foundation’s website was “a robust source of information about its operations,” including audited financial statements and federal tax returns.
Tripathi suggested in a brief interview that campus foundations would oppose the UUP proposal. The state comptroller has the power to audit local governments, state agencies and public benefit corporations. But campus foundations don’t fall under any of those categories, according to state laws and current interpretations of case law within the state court system.
“We have followed and we will always follow the rules that need to be followed,” Tripathi said. “We have made the case and we will continue to make the case that the foundation is a separate entity. It follows every rule that there is in New York State in terms of nonprofit foundations.”
Tripathi said the foundation functions well and benefits the university under the current system.
“We follow the rules and we get audited, and I think that has worked for us. But we will follow whatever rules come,” he said.
SUNY auditor Michael Abbott said in May that his office was in the process of auditing the UB Foundation. It will be the first outside audit of the foundation since its founding in 1962.
Glick said that while he was disappointed by the UB Foundation’s decision, he respected it.
Glick’s request was the latest in a string of attempts by UB faculty members and state legislators over the past few years to pry more information from the foundation, which has assets totaling more than $1 billion, about how it receives and spends money.
Some faculty have been highly critical of foundation efforts to keep its operations and finances shielded from public scrutiny, given that the organization exists solely to benefit the state’s largest public research university. Critics worry that without greater accountability measures, the UB Foundation is ripe for the kinds of abuses that have happened at other university foundations around the country and in the State University of New York system.
“There’s all these swirling issues about transparency at the UB Foundation,” said Glick. “The decisions made by the foundation are a little opaque.”
Adding a student, faculty member and professional staff member to the foundation board would not necessarily make more financial details publicly available. But Glick said such a move would be a sign of “shared governance” in the important decisions of the university, and “it might help some of our faculty members who think there are nefarious things going on at the foundation.
“Having those people at the table with a voice and with a vote would have contributed to the process. At least we would offer more perspective on things that otherwise might not have been considered,” he added. “Shared governance is the answer to a lot of problems when people say there’s not enough transparency.”