Columnist: Transparency a ‘sham’ with UI, regents

This column by Stephen Voyce, an English professor at the University of Iowa, was published by The Des Moines Register on Oct. 13, 2016.

It was about a year ago I began submitting open records requests in response to the regents-led presidential search that resulted in the appointment of Bruce Harreld. I published these records online, and distributed key findings to journalists.

I’ve drawn two conclusions from this experience: (1) adherence to open records law at the University of Iowa and the Board of Regents is a sham, and (2) it doesn’t have to be that way.

Open records law is essential for public transparency. Across the country, high-ranking officials like the former Chancellor Linda Katehi of the University of California at Davis and the former Chancellor Phillis M. Wise of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have suffered serious demotions for flagrant abuses of power. Evidence of their wrongdoing was in large part obtained through open records requests.

There is no doubt that our own Board of Regents dislikes a paper trail.

According to the Iowa Code section 22.2(2): “A government body shall not prevent the examination or copying of a public record by contracting with a non-government body to perform any of its duties or functions.” Yet, this is exactly what the regents did.

A company called Parker Executive Search was hired to consult and oversee the hiring process for the 2015 Presidential Search and Screen Committee. In the wake of the regents’ controversial selection, they claimed any information collected on behalf of the search committee by Parker Executive was their intellectual property, and hence not subject to open records requests. This brazen flouting of Iowa law meant that sensitive documents remained sealed during the crucial period while Harreld took office.

Making matters much worse, while open records law in Iowa could offer meaningful transparency, public institutions are given considerable latitude in drafting their own policies on records management.

During the early stages of my open records campaign, requests for the email of top officials like Jean Robillard, Bruce Rastetter and Peter Matthes frequently generated little to no results. I would learn soon after that the university relies on administrators to hand over their own correspondence, and only requires them to retain email for up to two weeks.

I put the question to UI’s transparency officer and its general counsel: “Could a university official receive an open records request, delete sensitive email, wait two weeks (after which time deleted email is said to be inaccessible), and then claim no responsive correspondence? Your office would have no independent means to verify whether or not this was the case. Correct?” Their answer: “We are following the law.” Indeed, apparently they are.

To this end, the following policy changes are badly needed:

First, the UI transparency officer (the person tasked with vetting open records requests) should be relocated from the Office of the President to the School’s Ombudsman’s office. Likewise, open records requests involving the regents should be handled by an employee other than the board’s own legal counsel.

Second, individuals subject to open records requests should not be allowed to police themselves. Staff members tasked with collecting records should access documents directly from university servers, while notifying employees whose communications are subject to requests.

Third, records should be kept for a period long enough to allow journalists, academics, and the university community to conduct their work and hold administrators and regents accountable for their actions.