LITTLE ROCK A judge's decision against forcing the University of Arkansas to disclose the proposal it used to secure a $300 million gift kept the key weapon in the school's fund-raising arsenal, Fayetteville campus chancellor John A. White said.
Judge Chris Piazza ruled Aug. 5 in Pulaski County Circuit Court that ordering the state's flagship university to make public its strategy for snaring the largest gift to an American public university and draft details of the gift would put the school at a disadvantage with other schools and organizations competing for philanthropic dollars.
The decision shielded documents related to the gift by the family of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton from the state Freedom of Information Act.
It also apparently was the first ruling that would extend to a state entity a competitive advantage exemption from the FOIA that has traditionally been used by corporations doing business with the government.
"The issue here for us was can we engage in confidential dialogue with you and can we put something down in writing, or do we have to just have simply oral understandings up to the point that we finally have an agreement," White said after a four-hour hearing Aug. 5. "That's a little tough. This stuff is very complex, so we have to put it in writing."
The Arkansas Times newspaper of Little Rock sued the university, seeking details on how it will spend money from the Walton family foundation. The newspaper's lawyer said no decision has been made about appealing the decision to the state Supreme Court.
White testified at the hearing that details of the gift and the transfer of funds were still under negotiation, and said any premature release of documents surrounding the proposal would make it difficult, if not impossible, to reach an agreement. He pledged to make the details public when the arrangements were final, possibly by the end of the year.
"I don't even want to contemplate what the impact would be if, over something like this, we lost that gift," he testified.
The newspaper's lawyer, T. Martin Davis of Little Rock, said the decision was disappointing because the public has a right to know what commitments the university made to get the money.
White testified that he made a personal commitment to Walton foundation executives that he would remain at the university for five years.
"I'd be curious in knowing if other people have made commitments about John White's stay there and what other deals might have been made," said Doug Smith, a columnist for the newspaper and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "It's a very big deal if private entities decide who's going to be the chancellor at the University of Arkansas."
White said that his was the only such commitment made and that the university made no commitment to keep him as chancellor of the Fayetteville campus.
"They have imagined a monster under the bed or in the closet when there's no monster anywhere on the premises," White said after the hearing.
When the gift was announced April 11, the amount was the largest gift ever to an American public university, and the fifth-largest to any American university, public or private.
The money, from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, is to be used to help further White's goal of building the Fayetteville campus into a nationally recognized research institution. The money will establish an undergraduate honors college and endow the university's graduate school.
University officials testified that work had already begun on the honor's college as a result of the Walton pledge.
The foundation was established by the heirs of the late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores based at Bentonville.