North Dakota Needs Some Sunlight On University Foundations

Recently I filed an open records complaint with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office because the North Dakota State University Development Foundation wouldn’t provide me with records regarding their revenues and expenditures. They argue that they are a private organization, with private staff, and thus are not a public entity and beyond the scope of state public record laws.

I disagree. A recent (and not altogether flattering) profile of NDSU President Dean Bresciani by Fargo Forum reporter Kyle Potter portrays a president that spends most of his time schmoozing big-money donors for the university. “With Bresciani’s help, the NDSU Development Foundation pulled in $17.2 million in gifts last year – up 85 percent from its $9.3 million haul in 2010, the year he took office,” reported Potter.

Keep in mind that Bresciani is a public official working at a public university and paid with public dollars. If he’s spending most of his time on the public dime fundraising for the NDSU Development Foundation, shouldn’t the use of those dollars be open to public scrutiny?

You’d think so. But in the murky world of university-affiliated nonprofits, it seems that a public official can spend most of his time working for the benefit of a private foundation that is beyond accountability to the public.

That’s worth keeping in mind as we read today’s report from the Grand Forks Herald, by John Hageman, about the sale of a building from a University of North Dakota-affiliated foundation to the university itself that some legislators think might not have been kosher:

The facility, the Research Enterprise and Commercialization (REAC) building, was sold by the UND Research Foundation, a nonprofit led by UND officials, to UND itself in September for $9.8 million.

But legislators now wonder if that sale went through the proper procedures. They point to a bill signed into law last year that allows the State Board of Higher Education to conduct the sale of the REAC building.

“The Legislature was very clear that UND should not be negotiating with UND on a building,” said Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks. He said at this time, it doesn’t appear the sale process followed the intent of the bill.

Holmberg, chairman of the Interim Legislative Management Committee, wrote a letter last week to Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, directing his committee to review aspects of the sale.

At issue is whether or not the UND officials in charge of the UND Research Foundation fixed the foundation’s fiscal problems (they’re now debt free according to the article) by dumping the REAC building on the taxpayers. And that’s a pertinent question to ask.

But the larger issue is what sort of accountability and oversight do these university foundations have? They are affiliated with public institutions. They’re governing structures often include university officials (NDSU President Bresciani, for instance, is the President of the NDSU Technology and Research Park foundation). The organizations are often incorporated using university lawyers working on the public time. The organizations also seem to be used as a way to give cushy jobs to politically well-connected people.

Like state Senator Tony Grindberg who, until recently, was an employee of the NDSU Technology and Research park where he was allowed to double-dip on his salary and expense his country club membership.

Yet, when it comes to being accountable to the public, we’re supposed to believe that these are private entities?

That doesn’t pass the smell test.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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