Our View: Transparency is necessary
Over the past several years, The University of Alabama has lost sight of the importance of a marketplace of ideas. The University’s actions against both the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice and Bama Students for Life are indicative of a troubling mentality among the leadership on campus that disagreement and confrontation are things to fear. The University has become a brand, protected by a tight grip on information and a reliance on the student body’s compliance.
What has resulted is a calamity of the intellectual possibilities on a college campus. In the past, controversial speakers have visited the University, providing students with a variety of opinions and thoughts to shape their own ideologies they would later take out into the world. Now, we no longer have commencement speakers, and any demonstration a student may want to organize must first be approved well in advance by administrators.
The protection of the University brand has left students with the short end of the stick. A culture has been created that discourages questioning and open debate, and students leave campus often blindly following what they are told, accepting the status quo without question. This compliance is unhealthy for our generation.
On Oct. 31, 2012, then-President Guy Bailey announced his resignation from his position at the University, only two months after his hiring. Much speculation surrounded the announcement. The Crimson White, sent Deborah Lane, assistant to the president and associate vice president of University Relations, several open records requests:
• “access to and a copy of all receipts (including documentation of the date the purchase or order was made) for orders or purchases for/of furniture or decorative items for the President’s Mansion’s private residence made by Guy Bailey, Jan Tillery-Bailey or any members of the staff provided them by the University to maintain the home between Oct. 1, 2012 and Nov. 1, 2012.”
• “access to and a copy of any and all email correspondence between you, Assistant to the President and Assistant Vice President for University Relations Deborah Lane, and Chancellor Robert Witt between Oct. 16, 2012 and Nov. 1, 2012.”
• “access to and a copy of all email correspondence between former President Guy Bailey and you, his former chief of staff at UA, between Oct. 16, 2012 and Nov. 1, 2012.”
The response from University Relations to all three specific records requests was short: “The University has no public records that are responsive to your request.” A plain reading of this response suggests that Guy Bailey never emailed his own chief of staff, and University relations, which directly works with the University over its image, never contacted Chancellor Witt during the transition.
The United States Constitution gives the public the right to free speech and to hold government officials accountable for their actions, and federal law provides for the full or partial disclosure of government documents. Furthermore, on the state level, the Alabama Code Public Records Law gives its citizens the ability to uphold these rights, stating, “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.” The request for this information is colloquially referred to as a FOIA, derived from the federal Freedom of Information Act. The emails and financial records we requested from the University last fall, including emails between UA officials, fall into this category of public information, and, as such, the public has a right to see them. Yet, our request was essentially ignored by public officials.
As a state school, The University of Alabama must comply with these laws. Without our community – students, faculty and staff – demanding accountability, the legal foundations that ensure transparency and public trust are rendered nonexistent.
Page 2 of today’s The Crimson White presents a box titled “Open Records Requests,” and The Crimson White website holds a similar page. Spurred by an initiative from The University of Oklahoma’s student newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily, this new system provides details on the information requested, the staff member who requested it, the person the information was requested from, the date it was requested, the status of the request and the reason for the status, if applicable. This box will become a permanent fixture in The Crimson White in order to inform the public of the requests.
Quietly requesting information and only hoping to get that information as we have done in the past will no longer satisfy our role as a watchdog of this campus and community. Unmonitored decision-making and unanswered questions will no longer be acceptable. In our demand for University transparency, we, too, must be transparent. By rolling out this new system of records requests, we seek timely University compliance and openness to meet our own.
Our View is the consensus of The Crimson White Editorial Board.