Editor’s Note: The following article is written by Jacqueline Wattles, who studied journalism and recently graduated from the University of Connecticut. She will be attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism this fall. Most of the reporting she did for this article can also be found at UConn’s The Daily Campus and CTNewsJunkie.com. This article is posted in two parts. Read Part 2 here.
By Jacqueline Wattles
In June 2013, a Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission ruling kept secret a contract detailing a new relationship forged by the University of Connecticut and Webster Bank. The ruling 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 to attract the nation’s best and brightest. As this pressure within higher education increases, universities have sought new ways to line their coffers, more often now driving their searches to private entities. For public universities, this new trend is creating friction between 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 relationship between UConn and Webster Bank began in 2008 when the university struck a deal with a company called IMG College. According to a 33-page contract between the two parties (found in two parts, here and here): IMG pays UConn up to $8.8 million a year to handle its sports marketing and promotion, with additional royalties based on net revenue. 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 marketing business. Before 2012, the university’s key sponsorship deal was with People’s United 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 than $200 million and employs about 5,000 people. It 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:
“The unique partnership for the first time encompasses all aspects of the University, including Athletics and the Alumni Association, and integrates media, hospitality, and venue signage as well as use of University intellectual property for branding, promotions, and affinity marketing.”
But the financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed — along with information that may have detailed how Webster Bank benefited from the deal, how much control the company now had over UConn marketing, and who controls which revenue streams.
The Connecticut Freedom of Information Act requires the public release of “any recorded data or information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, received or retained by a public agency,” unless those records fall under one of several exemptions. But when a reporter for the Associated Press requested a copy of the Webster Bank/IMG contract, Rachel Krinsky Rudnick, assistant director of compliance and privacy at UConn, withheld the contract because the signees were private entities, and she denied that the school retained a “final copy.”
The AP reporter, Pat Eaton-Robb, took the denial to the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, asserting that the public had a clear vested interest in the terms outlined in that contract. In the hearing process, the AP issued a statement saying, “it certainly appears that the University of Connecticut . . . has effectively outsourced an important government function to IMG [and] the public has a legitimate interest in how IMG is performing that function for one of the leading public universities in the nation.”
But as the hearing process wore on, Eaton-Robb quickly found he was out-gunned in legal power. UConn’s general counsel stepped in and IMG and Webster hired prominent attorneys to fight the case.
Read the second part of this article, describing the AP’s battle for UConn-Webster Bank records and what the effort means for the transparency of public colleges and universities.
Jacqueline graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2014. She will be attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism this fall. Her work can be read at The Daily Campus and CTNewsJunkie.com.