Thursday, June 2, 2011

Public school, private dealings

Public school, private dealings

As the State University of New York looks for more independence, it should be doing all it can to earn the public's trust. Instead, SUNY wraps itself in the cloak of secrecy that already shrouds the SUNY Research Foundation.

The university refuses to release a report on its relationship with the Research Foundation. So much for shedding some light on this rather covert entity that handles $1 billion in grants annually and has been tainted by corruption and patronage allegations for years. SUNY says the report is "privileged."

And therein lies the problem -- with a secret foundation, with SUNY's outrageous pay hikes and housing allowances for top administrators, with a possible no-show job for the daughter of a former Senate majority leader, with the suggestion that higher education is beyond scrutiny: The air of privilege that SUNY exudes is sometimes breathtaking.

The report, done by legal consultant Hogan Lovells US LLP, is on the "Research Foundation/SUNY relationship." Paid for with $290,000 in public funds, the report is said to offer a comprehensive look at the Research Foundation. But Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, who commissioned the report shortly after coming to SUNY in 2009, considers it protected by lawyer-client privilege. SUNY won't even say why she had the report done in the first place.

So let's get this straight: The state-funded SUNY had to pay nearly $300,000 to understand its own murky relationship with the Research Foundation, yet the public that foots the bill for SUNY is told, "none of your business"?

It's all the more of public interest right now, when SUNY Vice Chancellor John J. O'Connor, who also headed the Research Foundation for 15 years, is facing charges from the state Commission on Public Integrity that he hired Susan Bruno, daughter of former Republican Senate leader Joseph L. Bruno, for a no-show job as Mr. O'Connor's special assistant. She resigned the $84,120-a-year job in 2009 amid Times Union inquiries about it. Mr. O'Connor denies the charges and has even asked that a court create an entity to monitor the commission's handling of his case.

Ms. Zimpher, who in recent weeks has been out talking about SUNY's contributions to the state, must appreciate as a public official that she has to take the bad with the good -- and divulge both whether she likes it or not.

If she and the trustees want the Legislature to give SUNY so much independence -- to set tuition, forge private partnerships and manage its affairs without legislative approval -- they have to show that SUNY is willing to be accountable to the public.

And if SUNY refuses, then other state officials should ask why.
This might be a good place for Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who have teamed up to investigate and prosecute corruption in state government, to get started. The comptroller's and attorney general's offices, it's worth noting, were parties to the 1977 agreement that formalized the Research Foundation's role as fiscal administrator for SUNY's grants. It makes perfect sense that they'd want to look at how the foundation is handling things, starting with an audit by the comptroller.
And then let the rest of us in on the secret.

SUNY says a report of keen public interest is "privileged."

Secrecy doesn't help SUNY's cause for greater public trust.

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