OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Several of the University of Nebraska’s biggest projects at its Lincoln and Omaha campuses are being built through private partnerships that don’t use public bidding.
The Omaha World-Herald reports that bids weren’t used to award much of the work being done on the $323 million cancer center in Omaha, the $188 million research park in Lincoln or the $88 million arena in Omaha.
Private donations of millions of dollars helped build all those projects, and all received significant support from Omaha philanthropist Walter Scott.
The Tetrad Property Group, which is led by Scott’s son, has handled all the development work on these projects. And Kiewit Construction, the company Scott led before retiring in 1998, has done most of the construction.
NU President Hank Bounds said the university hasn’t made any promise to use companies affiliated with Scott in return for his generosity.
“Any story that is not about the tremendous success of this public-private partnership really would be a mischaracterization of the relationship that exists,” Bounds said.
The university set up private corporations to build the projects that shielded the contracts from public scrutiny.
University officials said the public-private arrangements are legal and help make it easier to solicit donations. They also say the elected Board of Regents provides oversight when it approves the projects.
Scott’s gifts to the university follow a high-engagement philanthropy model that generally comes with some hands-on oversight of how the money is spent.
Regent Hal Daub of Omaha said taxpayers can trust the oversight university leaders provide.
“I think they (taxpayers) should expect that there’s some responsible entity or elected official that has the ability to make sure things are done right,” Daub said.
Competitive bidding is common at public-private partnerships set up at other universities. Michael Poliakoff said universities need to make sure they are getting the best deal.
“Typically, that involves bidding things out,” said Poliakoff, who is with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which promotes accountability at colleges and universities.
The National Association of College and University Business Officers encourages schools to establish rules for public-private partnerships and how they spend public money. The University of Nebraska is a member of that group.
“Many of our schools have that, and many are developing that,” said Bob Shea, a senior fellow for finance and campus management with the association.