The FOI Loophole: Third-Party Contracts

In July last year, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission ruled to keep secret a contract detailing the new relationship forged by the University of Connecticut and Webster Bank. The case highlights questions that journalists must grapple with in the age of rising higher-education costs and the virtual arms race among universities to outspend one another in their efforts to attract the nation’s best and brightest. As this pressure increases, universities have sought new ways to line their coffers, inevitably driving their searches increasingly to private entities. For public universities, this new trend is creating a friction between the state residents who seek transparency for their tax dollars, and the university administrators who are under mounting pressure to compete with private universities while keeping tuition low.

The University of Connecticut dotted i’s and crossed t’s with a company called IMG College in 2008. A 33-page contract outlines their deal: IMG pays UConn more than $8 million a year to handle its sports marketing and promotion and up to $15 million in royalties. Part of that marketing relationship involves signing private companies to put their logo on UConn athletic signage and posters. This provides revenue to the university while in theory generating new customers for the business. Before 2012, the university’s key sponsorship deal was with People’s Bank. Its logo was on every poster, pamphlet, schedule card and doorway to Gampel Pavillion. The Connecticut-based bank has a net income of more nearly $200 million and employs about 5,000 people — and opened up branches on UConn’s campus, including one inside the university’s Co-op.

In 2012, that all changed. IMG leveraged its new control of UConn sponsorship rights to sign on Webster Bank as the new headline money backer of UConn athletics. In a matter of days, People’s Bank signage was stripped from sports fields, banners, and signs and replaced with Webster Bank logos. People’s Bank ATMs were removed from around campus and replaced with blue and gold Webster machines. The bank publicly announced its new status as “The Official Bank of UConn,” and the school sent out a press release boasting: Continue>>>