UT's foundations require transparency

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The trailer for Homo Erectus, a 2007 movie written, directed by and starring Adam Rifkin, lasts two and a half painful minutes and features a montage of women being clubbed over the head, one naked butt and a few cuts of men kissing, the last an unsophisticated reference to the first word in the film’s title.

Roderick Hart, dean of the College of Communications, confirms what the trailer implies: “It was a terrible film.”

But UT and UT students helped make the movie. Homo Erectus was produced by Burnt Orange Productions, LLC, a company owned by the UT Communication Foundation. The University cannot legally own a for-profit company, but the foundation successfully circumvents that rule because the Communication Foundation is an external nonprofit. Its stated mission is to support the University.

In reality, the Communication Foundation was established  in 2003 to pay for Homo Erectus and other films with both public and private money. Those films, in their defense, provided a learning experience for UT students interested in filmmaking, a handful of whom worked behind the scenes and on the set. Radio, Television and Film students worked on four films produced by Burnt Orange Productions between 2003 and 2007.

The films were meant as an educational exercise, with the possibility that they would additionally generate revenue. Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication when the Communication Foundation was established, explained in an interview: “We were hoping to set up a film production program that our students would work on that would actually produce films. We hoped it would develop into a source of income to keep production going with in the department. It was a way of connecting our students and getting them money for productions and getting them shown in theaters.”

In the past year, other external foundations collecting private money to support this public University have come under close scrutiny as part of a larger power struggle for control and oversight between the UT System Board of Regents and the UT administration.

In 2011, Lawrence Sager, former dean of the University of Texas Law School, resigned under pressure after he received a $500,000 forgivable loan using funds from the School of Law Foundation, a fact revealed by an open records request filed by disgruntled faculty members. Because the School of Law Foundation and the Communication Foundation are external to the University, the money they contribute is subject to different rules than public funds that come from other sources: the Texas Legislature (13 percent of the 2012 UT-Austin budget), the Permanent University Fund (the UT-System endowment) and federal funding from the U.S. Government.

In a state rabid about access to public information and transparency of government, the foundations operate in the shadows. The rules governing the money’s distribution are inconsistent and vague. The University wants to keep the regents at bay, but at a public institution, even private funds must be dispersed in a manner that is transparent and clear. This lack of transparency was truly the most objectionable characteristic of the Communication Foundation, the tastefulness of clubbing women aside.

The University was unable to provide records of Burnt Orange Productions’ expenditures, but the foundation “registered consistent negative balance of more than $760,000 on its tax forms since filmmaking ended in 2007,” according to an April 29 article in The Daily Texan. It continues, “By writing off its losses, the foundation registered a positive balance on its 2012 tax return of $22,000, but how those funds will be spent and whether or not the organization has any potential as a vehicle for funding at the University of Texas remains to be seen.” 

Should Homo Erectus and a filmmaking company described as a “sinkhole” for private and public money be a part of the mission of higher education? Many students involved directly in the project say “yes,” because the foundation provided them with valuable learning experience. One student told the Texan, “The main long-term benefit I received was working with high quality material.”

But any money flowing touched by foundations linked to the University — even money aimed ostensibly at enhancing the student experience — should be subject to all the transparency requirements of a public university in Texas. The intentionally opaque structures of many external foundations, which blur the lines between public responsibility and private interest, demand attention. 

Correction: Because of a copy editing error, an earlier verision of this article incorrectly said Lawrence Sager, former dean of the University of Texas Law School, gave himself $500,000 forgivable loan using funds from the School of Law Foundation. Sager did not give himself, but received the forgivable loan.