EDITORIAL: University corporations should be subject to public records laws

Nearly three dozen private corporations control hundreds of millions of dollars in donations flowing in and out of Florida’s 12 public universities. 

These large corporations, also known as university direct-support organizations, should be required to be as open and transparent as public universities. However, under state law they don’t have to disclose their donor list, staff salaries or how much they pay independent contractors. 

Earlier this month, The Associated Press (AP) attempted to highlight this lack of transparency when they sent records requests to Florida’s largest university corporations. 

When asked for staff salaries, a donor list and how much their contractors earn, the USF Foundation, Inc. rejected all three requests, according to the AP. 

The USF Foundation currently holds more than $800 million in donations and gifts made to the university. 

The USF Foundation also holds money for other university corporations such as the USF Research Foundation, Inc. and the USF Alumni Association, Inc., both of which also declined the AP’s records requests. 

Though the USF Foundation puts its yearly 990T Forms and financial statements on its website, the lack of transparency is concerning, especially when it is dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars in public university funds. 

Florida’s open government law, known as the Sunshine Law, was originally intended to allow taxpayers and journalists to track how public money is being spent and how state government agencies were operating with taxpayer money. 

Allowing universities to syphon millions in donations into private corporations that can bypass public records laws impedes the ability of Floridians to hold these public agencies accountable. 

These university corporations, regardless of their current status under state public records laws, have a responsibility to prove to Florida taxpayers that university donations are being spent in a responsible and effective manner. 

A 2008 case at the University of Central Florida, in which the family of a football player who died following conditioning drills successfully sued UCF Athletics Association, Inc., highlights the need for taxpayers and oversight agencies to have a better understanding of how these corporations operate. 

On the USF Foundation’s website, it claims to serve students and the community — unless the community wants to know more about where their money is being spent, then it’s a different story, as AP has shown. 

These corporations cannot and should not be allowed to continue operating on the fringes of legality. If they claim to work in the best interests of students, staff and the community of Florida’s public universities, they should be subject to the same laws.