According to Federal Election Commission data, members of the Board of Trustees made contributions to the political campaigns. The eight members of the board donated a total of $153,556 to the campaigns. Samantha Brammer // DN File
Trustees have donated more than $150,000 to political campaigns
After a campaign season filled with talk of limiting significant political campaign contributions, the contributions of the Board of Trustees are especially notable.
Between the eight members of the board who have given money, they donated $153,556 to political campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Two board members, Jean Ann Harcourt, newly appointed trustee, and Frank Hancock, who announced his resignation from the board in January, donated to the governor who appointed them to the board.
Hancock donated more than $50,000 to the Indiana GOP, which supported former Gov. Mitch Daniels during his time in office. Harcourt gave more than $20,000 to Gov. Mike Pence, who appointed her in July, directly to him or to the Indiana GOP.
The ability to give money to politicians is a part of the First Amendment, said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana. The trustees have the right to do what they want, she said, but people also have the right to see impropriety in the donations.
“It’s a public university, so one would hope that the trustees who serve would not tilt too far to one side or the other,” Vaughn said. “It also creates a similar appearance of impropriety when they’re making political contributions to the person responsible for appointing them to the position.”
It’s near impossible to have a board that matches the political demographics of the students, but the board should be representing the students, Vaughn said.
It’s all in how it looks, she said.
“I don’t think it eases the mind of Hoosiers when they see this kind of connection between public university boards and politicians and campaign contributions,” Vaughn said. “If you have a board that all look alike, all come from the same political thinking and all collect around the same candidates … I think it does send the wrong message when it looks very one-sided.”
But Joan Todd, university spokesperson, said political contributions are unrelated to the trustee’s role.
“The Board prides itself on its ability to arrive, with the input from campus, at decisions that are in the best interest of the university,” Todd said. “The Board's goals with respect to strong academic quality, high job placement, and affordability are universally shared and not partisan issues.”
Diversity is important, Vaughn said, especially in a university environment, and she would hope that a similar diversity is reflected on the board.
At Ball State, six out of eight of the trustees who donated money (the one who has never donated is the student trustee, Dustin Meeks) appear to lean right and two lean to the left.
When it comes to campaign donations, Vaughn said it’s like the “wild West” in Indiana.
“There are very few rules, and these kinds of conflicts of interests are not uncommon,” she said. “It’s not going to change unless people demand that it changes.”
Organizations like the Federal Election Commission and Follow the Money exist to make those donations transparent for the public and to hold those who donate accountable.
“The public’s right to know is an essential ingredient of our democracy,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “People may not pay attention, but [the information] still needs to be there.”
Follow the Money is hoping to bring transparency into the 21st century, Bender said. He knows there are situations where people will give money and expect for access to decision makers or favors. This isn’t illegal unless it turns toward quid pro quo, or money for a vote or contract.
But it’s still something the public should know about, he said.
As for the trustees, because they are the arbitrators of important decisions regarding the health of the institution, they need to exercise good judiciary responsibilities about how taxpayer money is spent.
“I don’t know how much politics fits into that,” Bender said. “At the end of the day, it’s about making responsible decisions on tax payer money and trying to ensure quality education.