Under a law that took effect last year, the public has the right to access the records of private foundations that are affiliated with University of California and California State University system campuses and examine how they spend the hundreds of millions of dollars they raise.
Or at least that was the idea behind legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2011 that made the foundations subject to the California Public Records Act.
Supporters described the law as a win for open government, but trying to get useful information out of the foundations since it passed raises questions about whether their records are any more accessible than in the past.
The Associated Press sought to determine the law’s effectiveness in providing the types of information routinely available through state and local agencies under California’s open records law. It tested how the law was being applied at several foundations and sought feedback from the legislation’s advocates and its author.
What emerged was a daunting and sometimes frustrating exercise to detail even the most basic aspects of foundation spending.
The law did not establish uniform reporting requirements for the dozens of university foundations at the state’s four-year higher education systems, creating a patchwork of efforts to comply with its disclosure requirements.
Even determining how to contact the foundations and ask for the information can be a challenge.
The sheer scope of the foundation system is another obstacle.
The 23 CSU system campuses have 89 auxiliaries and foundations that control $1.6 billion, according to the CSU Chancellor’s Office. The 10 UC campuses have one foundation each with a total of $5.9 billion in assets, according to the UC Office of Institutional Advancement.
While no taxpayer money is involved directly, the presidents and top officials at the universities are frequently listed as board members or president of the foundations.
The flow of private money through the state’s higher education system has come under greater scrutiny because of ongoing tuition increases and faculty cutbacks at the institutions, which educate a combined total of 646,000 students.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, sought the law in order to try to close a loophole in state public records laws after the CSU Stanislaus Foundation refused to release its speaking contract with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2010.
Yee said he wants to see how the law works over time before proposing fixes.