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The U of M fails Public Disclosure 101, say journalists

Why some journalists have a serious problem with the U of M
Morrill Hall, University of Minnesota

With recent releases of a $690,000 external review and internal audit of the University of Minnesota athletics department — a pair of reports that scolded more than indicted the school’s sports culture — the school may believe it has survived its latest self-­inflicted wound and can return to business as usual.

But at least two prominent local journalists, one of whom is now on the faculty at the U, remain mightily peeved at the way the school routinely resists disclosure of public information.

Chris Ison won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting while working at the Star Tribune, and now teaches reporting, investigative journalism and media ethics at the U’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“I tell my students that the U is possibly the worst public body in the state in abiding by public records law,” Ison said. “I tell them it’s going to be hard to get what you want to get. That they’re going to have to put their requests in writing and call almost daily and that along the way they may not be treated with respect.”

Dan Browning, a veteran Star Tribune reporter who’s widely respected for his investigative work, echoes Ison, saying that “appalled” is a fair description of his reaction to how flagrantly he sees the school’s intensely bureaucratic public information apparatus obstructing the public’s right to know.

He describes a process familiar to every reporter who has been tasked with covering corporate America, one in which a request for access to people, information or documents is immediately greeted with a wall of public-relations minions charged with managing the institutional brand, controlling access, and tamping down criticism. The critical difference obviously being that the University of Minnesota is a massive public institution supposedly answerable to taxpayers, not shareholders.

It was Browning who “dug through 600 pages of documents,” for information about former U of M Athletic Director Norwood Teague’s expense and donor records that under law should have been handed to him. (Browning has worked with Emma Nelson, Maura Lerner and Mila Koumpilova, among others, covering the Teague story.)

“The U has designed a bureaucracy whose purpose is to retard speed [in the release of information],” said Browning.

That process, he and Ison describe, involves funneling requests for interviews or documents through the University News Service, which — lacking anything close to the number of people capable of handling the current volume — quickly becomes a choke point, frequently delaying “permission” for an individual to speak long past a reporter’s deadline, a tactic that, again, is familiar to anyone trying to cover the corporate world.

Dan Browning
Dan Browning

U of M officials emphatically deny the assertion that administrators, faculty and staff are required to get permission to speak to the media, or that reporters are required to seek interviews through the U’s News Service. “There is no policy in place requiring anyone to get permission,” said Chuck Tombarge, the U’s Chief Information Officer. “Some may choose to use us. But they are free to make the decision on their own.”

Marion Renault, the current editor-­in-­chief at the school’s student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, was momentarily at a loss for words of response when I told her that the U said there was no policy requiring journalists to use the news service.

“I really don’t know how they can say that,” she said. “I’m not surprised, I guess. But I’m pretty comfortable saying that if we want access to the university, anyone other than students, we have to go through the News Service. It is certainly not the experience of our reporters [at The Daily] or mine as a reporter there that we are free to contact whoever we want.”

Renault describes her experience researching how Big Ten schools tread the line when handling open-records requests on matters of student sexual assaults. The U of M, she says, was the only Big 10 school that didn’t even acknowledge open-records requests for information.

Ison isn’t surprised. “Delays by the university are worse than anyone I’ve ever had to deal with,” he said. “In fact, I’ve seen requests for information sent out to every school in the Big Ten, and Minnesota was the worst, the slowest, in responding.”

He added: “The situation has been bad here for a long time, but has actually gotten worse in recent years.”

Ison recalls Strib reporters at least being able to sit down face to face with former U of M President Mark Yudoff during the Clem Haskins basketball scandal. During the most recent mess, Browning says his requests for face time with current President Eric Kaler have been swallowed up and effectively denied (without being officially declined) by the school’s PR process. (Tombarge says Browning’s colleague, Maura Lerner, was given “a couple days” of access to Kaler during the most recent State Fair.)

In Browning’s case, it hasn’t been for the lack of trying. “Our guys [meaning editor Rene Sanchez and other editorial managers] have given me every bit of support I’ve asked for. They’ve been willing to spend money on lawyers even when we should have been getting this stuff for free.”

Chris Ison
Chris Ison

Bill Donohue, the U’s chief counsel, says the demand for data practices information related to the Teague story was unusually high, but said the U paid for 250 hours of temporary help to facilitate the paperwork. “We recognize that there is a problem with staffing,” he says, “and we have requested additional budget.”

Browning also said that on a previous beat covering the U’s medical innovations sector, “The people couldn’t have been easier to work with. They were delighted someone was interested in what they were doing. But you get into athletics or tuition issues and it’s a whole different game.”

But was his positive experience with medical innovations because he was essentially providing “happy news”? The puffy, flattering stuff that businesses and big institutions’ public information officers [PIOs] are trained to curry and facilitate?

“No. Not all of it was ‘happy stuff.’ I had to cover their cuts in [National Institute for Health] funding, which didn’t exactly reflect well on them. But the point is I could pick up the phone and talk to the person with the information directly. In this situation [with the athletics department], it’s this nearly impenetrable wall. A wall that violates every rule in the book.”

Said Ison: “It’s so bad it isn’t at all unusual for a spokesman, one of these people reporters have to go through, to return a call to a reporter reprimanding them for calling the person who has the information they’re looking for.” Daily editor Renault confirms the student reporter experience of being scolded by the News Service for failing to run interview requests through them.

Tombarge says that the U’s average response time to a Data Practices Act request in 2015 is 11 days, for 215 separate requests. “By comparison,” he says, “we had 61 requests in 2012 that took an average of 36 days.”

“Did he really say 11 days?” Renault asked. “I don’t know what to say to that, other than it just does not reflect the experience we’ve had, and maybe that’s because they treat us, as student journalists, differently.”

Neither Ison or Browning feels confused about the university’s motivations. “They don’t like bad press,” says Ison. “What government agency does? They’re very sensitive about their image and public relations. They depend on the public for funding. So they want to manage all the information about the university. But it is simply too big to do that. Moreover, any institution that gets hundreds of millions of dollars in public money, especially an institute of higher learning, should have a complete commitment to transparency. Instead they’ve decided to run this place like a private company.”

Neither Ison or Browning can point to a single lever that might be pulled to achieve the kind of transparency they expect and have a right to expect under law. But beyond just the university there is a broader trend toward controlling basic information.

As the independent, non­profit investigative website ProPublica wrote several years ago, while staffing in American newsrooms has shrunk dramatically over the past 15 years, the public relations industry has boomed. ProPublica noted that revenues at public relations agencies went from $3.5 billion to $8.75 billion from 1997 to 2007 — with paid employees jumping from 38,735 to 50,499, a 30 percent increase. Meanwhile, newspaper advertising revenue collapsed from an all­-time high of $49 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2009, resulting in a decline in the number of newspaper reporters and editors from 56,900 in 1990 to 41,600 in 2011.

Translation: As the number of journalists asking questions has dramatically declined, the public relations industry, often chock full of former journalists well aware of how the news game is played and now earning significantly better money, is well­-armed to deflect potentially bad publicity and spin out countermessaging.

Compounding the problem, says Browning, are the reporters who are too busy to decipher spin in the torrent of press releases churned out by public relations flacks and public information officers, and who as a consequence convert slick brand­-management promotion into news stories.

“As the news media shrinks,” he laments, “we are becoming more and more a processing agency for press releases. That’s a bad situation all the way around.”

But in the U’s case, as an enormous, taxpayer-­supported entity, the essential issue is as simple as this: The school, say Ison and Browning, is refusing to provide public information it is required to provide under law. “I don’t get how they think they’re even in the ballpark when it comes to following the law,” said Ison.

To that Donohue replies: “We think we are not only in the ballpark in replying to data requests, but we’re doing quite well, considering available resources and the surge in demand.”

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Comments (9)

Averages

I'm a little skeptical of "average" response times. If one trivial request takes a day for a response and another request that might be critical of the institution takes 20 days for a response, the "average" is slightly less than 11 days, yet someone might have to wait nearly 3 weeks to get a response – and that doesn't guarantee that their request has been successful. At that rate, it could take months to get a meaningful answer if it's an issue the U happens to be more-than-usually protective about.

I'm inclined to agree with the skeptics above. It's a public institution, funded largely with tax dollars. It ought to be utterly transparent (so should the legislature, but that's a different piece). If there isn't enough staff to do ensure prompt responses, then cut something from the budget (e.g., men's athletics, or the University President's compensation package) and hire more people to respond to those kinds of requests.

Clinical trials

It's not the crime, it's the cover up that gets you. Reminds me when a professor once requested all the data for study 41 only to find the termination date for those documents was mysteriously moved up.

Time for a Culture Change within U of M Staff

While I enjoyed much of my time as a student of at the U of M, I found the bureaucracy to be unnerving. Sometimes I wondered if the thousands employed by the university were under the impression that the institution existed more for their employment than for the students and their education. I suspect that the problems identified in this article are covering up huge financial inefficiencies and internal practices that are detrimental to the well-being of the students.

I think you're right. I used to think the problem...

...started and stopped at the top, but now it seems we've got an Education Industrial Complex on our hands - too big, too much momentum. I wonder if Kaler can even do anything about it.

Clinical trials and U's department of psychiatry

This article could not be more accurate in describing the nightmare of attempting to obtain any documents from the UMN. The General Counsel has one agenda and that's deny..deny..and deny some more...and then when finally producing some documents they are incomplete or "redacted" so obviously in an attempt to cover-up or distort the original piece. In the Office of the Legislative Auditors investigation into the Markingson scandal, the OLA office had requested any and all documents relevant to the Markingson case....they did not receive anything close to that from the U. Documents regarding conflict of interests as well as financial payments to the researchers as well as to the department of psychiatry were "missing." This isn't anything new folks.

UM access to information

While working at U of M Duluth between 1994 and 2012, I witnessed a significant culture shift in terms of the way information was handled. One might call it increasing micro management of message, especially concerning large donors or anything large enough to reflect back on administration.

It was quite evident that UMD University Relations (sometimes Chancellor's staff) wanted to manage those messages and funnel communications to them. The role and staff of Development and PR machines increased during my time at UMD, while some departments were cut entirely.

This is not difficult to understand and not necessarily wrong, but of course it slows access to information way down, insures that "spin" favors UM, and increases the possibility for appearance of and instances of, shall we say, "creative obfuscation." It had the ripple effect of micro managing my department's operation regarding certain decisions.

One of the reasons we have public and publicly supported institutions is to ensure transparency. Access to information from public institutions is what I pay taxes for. With the construction of larger PR machines at "public" universities, we are seeing the effects of less and less public support.

Faculty would be appalled

Faculty would be appalled that anyone thinks there is a "permission to speak to" them required by some bureaucrat! In fact, faculty at the U are really sensitive about such things as free speech and attendant values like academic freedom. That was the crux of a dispute several years ago between a PR-oriented U Vice President (she's since gone) and the Bell Museum and some Ag faculty, who put out a hard-hitting film for public TV about Big Ag's polluting of Minnesota water, "Troubled Waters."

No administrator, as far as my forty years on the U's faculty would indicate, has the right to tell any reporter--student or otherwise--that they can't talk to a faculty member. Or, that faculty can't talk with reporters. Except when it's a personnel issue. Ah!

That's what this article, which damns by using a very broad brush, forgets to mention: personnel issues and other confidential matters. The U faculty have contracts that closely define what stuff can be public when, and of course, they can't reveal any information about other faculty members or staff or students. By law, and by contracts with grantors. They can talk about medical innovations/their research, but not the patients. And not about sexual assaults.

As for administrators, there's a long-existing culture at the U to defend the institution from any and all. And that includes from any faculty member who steps in doo-doo: look how they get rid of major medical researchers and inventors, or major research faculty in other areas, when that someone does something like, say, hold another university job simultaneously somewhere else. Gone in the blink of an eye before that mistake tarnishes the institution. Defending the U against its faculty and all outsiders is a mission for many administrators. Journalists can gripe about it. But the U's history includes times when that defensive posture is almost the only thing that kept the institution alive while sustaining ignorant or biased and coordinated attacks, both from inside and outside.

This is not just administrative PR-against-journalists. Sometimes journalists actually have to dig. Especially when what they want is not policy-related, just dirt.

and that is all the people need to know

When the person responding to your request about media access practices is the chief counsel for the organization, that's pretty much all you need to know.

University's Counsel Office

For the flagship university in Minnesota, supposedly a bastion of strong ethics and high-minded values, this behavior betrays every quality to which we Minnesotans aspire. Their lack of public disclosure is a stinging indictment on the leadership of the University of Minnesota and the entire system of universities it represents. The lame excuse offered by the University's Counsel Office is an even more telling indictment...really? Not enough resources to comply with THE LAW??