Editorial: Poly shouldn’t let Harris donations influence classes

It’s become disgustingly clear that top officials at Harris Ranch are trying to use their clout as big-money donors to censor what’s taught at Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture.

Specifically, they’ve threatened to withhold $500,000 in donations for a new meat-processing center unless the university tones down teaching about alternatives to the traditional factory farming methods practiced by Harris Ranch.

That’s an assault on academic freedom that should not be tolerated.

We strongly urge Cal Poly to turn down any donation that comes with such offensive strings attached.

Unfortunately, though, we may never know the final outcome of the Harris Ranch episode. As recently reported by Tribune writer Nick Wilson, Cal Poly officials are not disclosing information about any donations from Harris Ranch. They cite a Cal State University policy of not revealing donor records unless the university has been given permission by the donors.

We can understand why institutions such as hospitals, schools and churches would want to respect the wishes of anonymous donors.

Indeed, we commend generous donors who are stepping up and helping our universities through one of the worst financial periods in state history. We also trust that the vast majority of donors do so without any heavy-handed attempts to stifle certain teachings they may find unpopular, offensive or disturbing.

But as the example of Harris Ranch points out all too well, in some cases donors may try to cross the line and exert undue influence in the classroom.

For that reason, we believe a policy of secrecy is misguided for a public institution funded primarily by taxpayers.

Just as large contributions to political campaigns are required to be publicly disclosed, large contributions to public universities should be open to public scrutiny. It’s an essential check and balance to guard against undue influence by a corporation, organization or individual.

Currently, however, the weight of the law is on the side of secrecy.

According to court rulings, auxiliary organizations that raise money for public schools are not state agencies and, for that reason, are not subject to the California Public Records Act.

Because practically all donations to public colleges and universities are now funneled through foundations, that means the bulk of donations to Cal Poly and other public universities are not subject to disclosure.

There is a move to change that.

Last year, state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill that would have required at least some donations to be public.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, but it was recently reintroduced by Yee.

His legislation would require public disclosure, though it would still allow donors to remain anonymous unless they receive a tangible benefit worth at least $500, such as box seats at a stadium.

That’s a loophole that would still allow a donor — such as a Harris Ranch — to try to use its checkbook to influence what’s taught on our public school campuses.

That’s a problem. Yet we do see Sen. Yee’s legislation as an important first step, and we strongly urge its passage.

Regardless of what happens with the bill, however, we believe Cal Poly should, as a sign of good faith to its students, its faculty and its community, be willing to disclose all future dealings with Harris Ranch.

If Cal Poly does accept a donation from Harris Ranch or any of its principals, it should disclose that to the public.

It also should impose its own condition: That Cal Poly faculty — not Harris Ranch — determine what is or is not taught in the classroom.