Kentucky taxpayers invested $33 million to build a performing arts center at Eastern Kentucky University, a public university. EKU hired Debra Hoskins to manage that center at a salary, on the public payroll, of $108,000 a year.
Yet, when things went bad between EKU and Hoskins, the university insisted documents about her dismissal/resignation and the issues that led up to it shouldn't be open to that taxpaying public.
Both Hoskins and the university relied on the remarkable legal argument that a confidentiality agreement the two parties agreed to at the time of her departure (a $76,591.04 settlement plus "other considerations" paid by, guess who?) trumped the state's open-records law.
When the Herald-Leader's Rich Copley asked for documents related to the separation, Hoskins and EKU didn't want to release most of them. When the attorney general's office, which has the responsibility for interpreting open-records law, agreed with the paper and ordered that the documents be handed over, they still weren't convinced.
So they contested the order to release the documents in court, where they again lost.
Thankfully, under Kentucky's good open-records law, they never had much chance to win.
Still, EKU burned up yet more public resources — its own and those of the courts — by contesting the inevitable.
The money and time spent on this are bad enough, but the most disturbing aspect here is that a university — a place that exists ultimately to teach people to question, to examine, to debate — took as its first line of defense denying answers to legitimate questions.
EKU, of course, is not alone in its tendency to seek refuge in stonewalling when bad or embarrassing news arises.
The University of Kentucky is contesting an attorney general's order to respond to a request for information by suing a reporter at its own campus radio station.
What's the message to students from these stories? Leave your curiosity in the classroom where it can't do any harm?
What is the message to taxpayers? Just pay the bills and we'll tell you what we think you need to know?
When Madison Circuit Judge William G. Clouse Jr. ruled that EKU must turn over the documents, he wrote, "the public has a right to confidence in its institutions and the people that make decisions," and the way to gain that confidence is "to understand what happened."
A new president, Michael T. Benson, will soon take over at EKU. As will happen for anyone who ever runs an organization the size of EKU, sooner or later something will go wrong under his watch. When it does, let's hope he remembers Clouse's wise words.
The public can't have confidence in the institution unless it can understand what happened. It's advice the presidents of Kentucky's other public universities should also take to heart.