Higher ed fighting to keep secrets

Today begins Sunshine Week, the annual reminder that a healthy democracy depends upon access to information about its institutions and those running them.

Without the bright light of exposure, corruption, mismanagement and outright lies thrive in the murky recesses, eating away at our civil society.

This year there will be much commentary about the threat of presidents and governors who keep their personal financial dealings secret, denying the public’s right to see where their interests lie. There will be debate about whether those who leak secret information are heroes or criminals.

In Kentucky, we can be thankful that strong open records laws allowed reporters, like the Herald-Leader’s John Cheves, to unearth the dreadful story of a child, failed by the state social services system, who was condemned to living hell.

But any victory is overshadowed by the very disturbing trend of public universities fighting with their considerable might to protect their secrets.

“We are seeing an all too familiar pattern by our public universities to stifle transparency related to public records of faculty’s potential involvement in cases of sexual assault,” Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear said last week while announcing his intervention in lawsuits by the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University against their student newspapers.

Both universities have refused to release information to their student newspapers. When the papers appealed to the AG, the schools even refused to provide it to that office for review, as Kentucky law requires.

It’s a clear statement the universities see themselves as above, or at least outside, the law.

UK has cloaked refusals in the warm light of protecting victims of sexual harassment or abuse but those are by no means the only cases where it’s fighting hard to keep secrets.

In August 2014 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked to see UK’s protocols for using animals in teaching. UK denied the request, saying the protocols where not subject to open records law because they were preliminary, and that they contained personal information that could make researchers targets of animal rights activists.

PETA appealed to the AG’s office which found UK had violated the Kentucky Open Records Act. UK then appealed that decision to Fayette Circuit Court where Judge Pamela Goodwine recently agreed with PETA and the AG. Goodwine noted the protocols had been adopted so could hardly be preliminary, and that UK’s website identifies faculty and staff who use animals in their teaching.

In the medical arena, in July 2015, the Kentucky Medical Services Foundation, which collects money from UK patients and pays UK physicians, turned down portions of a request by an individual for information about its finances. KMSF claimed it was a private entity and not subject to the law. The attorney general’s office did not agree, saying UK and its College of Medicine “exercise extensive and continuing control of the foundation.” KMSF appealed that decision to circuit court, where it’s still pending.

It’s alarming that a university is fighting so hard to limit access to information.

It’s also disturbing that UK and KMSF use their superior financial and legal resources to drag out these cases, hoping to outlast or exhaust those seeking information.

This waste of resources belies the university’s mission and diminishes our civic life. UK’s Board of Trustees must stop it.