UI secrecy not appropriate for public school

This column by the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council was made available to every newspaper in Iowa.

By Randy Evans

The philosophy behind Iowa’s public records and public meetings laws is quite simple: Government in Iowa should be open to the people of Iowa except in a few rare instances.

After all, this is their government. Government does not belong to government officials or to government agencies.

The people need to have ready access to government documents and government meetings to effectively monitor the activities and actions of officials and employees who are elected or hired to run our state and local governments. Without that access, people won’t be able to hold government and its employees accountable.

That’s important background for a controversy that has been bubbling for a couple of months over secrecy by top administrators at the University of Iowa.

This is a controversy that should concern Iowans. The University of Iowa belongs to them. It’s not a private school or a private business that can operate outside the close scrutiny of the public.

During the past two years, the university has hired a company owned by Matt Strawn, the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, to perform research and outreach work for the university. The Strawn Company was chosen without the university seeking bids from other vendors.

Since 2013, the university has paid Strawn about $320,000. That’s a lot of money, whether it comes from the taxpayers, from tuition paid by University of Iowa students or is donated by Iowans to help this public university.

But there’s a problem with all of this.

The new president of the university, Bruce Harreld, does not want to let the people of Iowa see what the university learned from its $320,000. He wants to treat the polling, focus group research and the response strategies the money purchased as if he were still an executive at IBM or Boston Market.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a statewide organization that advocates for government transparency and accountability, wrote to Harreld in December to make the case for the public release of the questions and results from the opinion polling and focus group research.

As the executive director of the council, I wrote in our letter to Harreld: “You may not yet appreciate fully the motivation that led lawmakers to write the state’s open records and open meetings laws (with strong encouragement and help from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council). They acted in the belief that openness and informed discussion are central to effective government in our state — just as openness and informed discussion are hallmarks of a great university.”

I explained about Iowa’s “sunshine” laws, “When there is ambiguity in the construction or application of these laws, the Legislature made it clear that such ambiguity should be resolved in favor of openness.”

I told him the rationale for the university’s secrecy did not rise to the level the Legislature envisioned when it wrote the open records law. I told the president the university’s lawyer, Carroll Reasoner, “asserts that releasing documents pertaining to the research by these University of Iowa contractors would serve no public purpose. Actually, that is the most important argument in favor of releasing the documents related to the work by the Strawn Company and its subcontractors.”

Iowans are entitled to know what the polling found regarding their perceptions and impressions of the school. I said in my letter, “Public accountability is precisely what the Iowa Legislature had in mind when it wrote the open records law, especially documents generated at public expense that your institution is keeping confidential. If you and the university continue to treat these documents as a secret, you will erode the public trust in the University of Iowa and in your stewardship of the institution.”

The university answered my letter last week. Reasoner was blunt in her response: “If others want to know how the university is perceived, they can conduct their own polling.”

She wrote, “The university competes with other businesses for talent in the employment marketplace, with other institutions of higher education for students and strives to achieve a positive impression with all stakeholders.”

Reasoner claimed the university’s secrecy is required in this case under a section of the open records law that pertains to “reports to governmental agencies which, if released, would give advantage to competitors and serve no public purpose.”

But Reasoner is wrong. That section says such records “shall be kept confidential, unless otherwise ordered … by the lawful custodian of the records.” And the lawful custodian of the documents pertaining to the polling and focus groups is the university.

It’s also important to note that past Iowa Supreme Court cases regarding this section have been brought by businesses, not government entities, and those businesses objected to the release of reports they were required to prepare and provide to the government. In those cases, the court upheld the public release of the documents.

I think it’s safe to conclude that Iowans’ views of the university are not ones the university wants to trumpet in a press release. If the research had found Iowans heralding the university’s academic prowess or its cost vs. value in Iowans’ eyes, you probably would see billboards touting that.

I’m betting Iowans are not favorably impressed by the university’s ranking as one of the nation’s top “party schools,” by frequent news about binge drinking there, by officials’ response to sexual assaults of students or by the amount of scholarship aid the university provides to needy students.

But the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that embarrassment by government officials is not sufficient reason for keeping government documents out of the hands of the public. And I have a hunch that Iowans’ impressions were embarrassing to University of Iowa officials, and that’s why President Harreld and attorney Reasoner are fighting to keep this secret.