UConn Foundation, student trustee bills advance to Senate floor

Undergraduate trustee-elect Adam Kuegler speaks at a higher education committee public hearing in Hartford on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 advocating for additional student trustees. (Kyle Constable/Daily Campus)

HARTFORD — A bill to increase transparency at the University of Connecticut Foundation and a bill to add two new student trustees at the university both advanced to the Senate floor with favorable recommendations from the state higher education committee Tuesday.

The UConn Foundation transparency bill – a compromise spearheaded by Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton – received praise from legislators on both sides of the aisle for delicately handling what has been a controversial issue for decades.

Under the proposal, the UConn Foundation would have to provide an annual report to the state higher education committee that would include its audited financial statements and details about the number and average size of the disbursements it made to the university each year.

While the foundation’s records would still not be subject to state FOI laws, the report to the state legislature would be.

Witkos said concerns from some state officials that the bill did not go far enough prompted him to return to the negotiating table with the university and the foundation to see if more information could be disclosed in the report.

In the end, university and foundation officials conceded to releasing the salaries of all employees at the foundation by their positions as well as the names of the donors who do not opt out of being included in the report.

“We can finally put the issue to bed in the General Assembly about dragging our foundations in here year after year after year because a news outlet or media outlet reports something that they find egregious, but ... that’s a very responsible and often times directed donation to the foundation,” Witkos said.

The UConn Foundation, a nonprofit that serves as the university’s fundraising arm, receives about $8 million from the university annually to cover staff and expenses. In return, it usually raises about eight to 10 times that amount for the university. Last year, the foundation raised $78 million, according to foundation president Joshua Newton.

The foundation also oversees and manages the university’s $383 million endowment. The bill would phase out the university’s financial backing of the foundation as the endowment grows. If the endowment reaches $1.25 billion, the university would no longer be allowed to provide any financial support to the foundation.

Newton and UConn Provost Mun Choi testified in favor of the bill at a public hearing on March 8. Representatives from the FOI Commission and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information also said at the hearing they would support the bill, though they would prefer for the nonprofit to be deemed a public entity so all of its documents would be subject to FOI laws.

Even the most staunch freedom of information advocates on the committee could not bring themselves to vote against the bill. Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, said she was ready to see significant action that would put the issue behind them.

“I will be supportive this time, just because I don’t want to hear about this anymore,” Willis said with a grin. “(I’m) so done.”

Legislators on the committee also gave a favorable recommendation to a bill that would create two new student trustee positions on the board of trustees at UConn. Incoming undergraduate trustee Adam Kuegler testified in favor of the bill during a public hearing on March 8.

Witkos told Kuegler during the hearing he was preaching to the choir. The legislature passed the bill overwhelmingly last year with no opposition in the Senate and only one dissenting vote in the House. However, an unexpected veto from the governor prevented it from becoming law.

A spokesman for the governor declined to comment on whether Malloy would veto it again.