UT officials have donated funds to numerous political campaigns and political action committees

Alexa Ura

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series examining UT officials’ political donations. This installment examines contributions by administrators at UT-Austin. Subsequent stories will focus on contributions by UT System officials and UT-Austin professors.

Current UT deans, presidents, provosts, vice provosts and vice presidents have donated more than $27,000 since 1999 to both Republican and Democratic political campaigns and political action committees at both the state and federal level, according to filings compiled by The Daily Texan from the Texas Ethics Commission and the Federal Election Commission.

In the last 13 years, most political donations from administrators went to individual politicians, including members of the Texas Senate, the Texas House of Representatives, the U.S. Congress and gubernatorial races. Administrators have also donated to presidential nominees. Some of the donations were made before administrators were in their current positions.

William Cunningham, a current UT marketing professor and former UT System chancellor and university president, chairs the Friends of the University Political Action Committee. Friends of the University is a PAC that donates to politicians on both sides of the political aisle but mainly focuses on legislators involved in higher education policy.

Cunningham, a former administrator, donated more in the last 13 years than all the other UT administrators combined. His contributions total $42,050 and were mostly directed to individual state and U.S. politicians.

UT spokesperson Tara Doolittle said campaign contributions fall under an individual’s right to free speech.

“Generally on the subject of administrators and donations, the rule is the same whether it’s an administrative assistant or the president,” Doolittle said. “As long as University resources or official positions are not used to advocate or influence political activity, employees are free to participate in the political system.”

The University does not allow employees to participate in political activities in their official UT roles, according to UT’s Handbook of Operating Procedures.

Current administrators donated about 30 percent of all contributions made in the last 13 years to presidential or vice presidential campaigns.

Nine percent of contributions went to the Friends of the University. Communication Dean Roderick Hart has donated at least $100 every year since 2000 to Friends of the University, the most to the PAC among administrators, totaling $2,000.

The Friends of the University PAC contributed $3,500 to House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and $5,000 to former Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, in 2011.

Zaffirini received $250 in direct contributions from Hart and $500 from Cockrell School of Engineering Dean Gregory Fenves.

Friends of the University PAC volunteer John Doner said the PAC’s goal is to donate to legislators and other state officials who support the University and higher education in general.

“We are entirely separate from the University and make independent decisions based on our own research,” Doner said.

Center for Responsive Politics spokeswoman Viveca Novak said the disclosure of campaign contribution records is important to deduce conflicts of interest or the potential impact an individual affiliated with a specific institution can have on powerful recipients. She said conflicts of interests are difficult to prove.

“Individuals make contributions for various reasons, but the reason disclosure of who’s giving the money is so important is precisely so that the public can keep track of who’s helping to fund a politician’s career and what actions the recipient takes that might benefit the donor,” Novak said.

Printed on Monday, October 29, 2012 as: UT officials fund PACs, campaigns