EKU must open planning process: Secrecy at public college fuels distrust

There is nothing wrong with the fact that Eastern Kentucky University is taking a long, careful look at how to best use its resources.

That's the responsible thing to do periodically, to re-examine programs and spending to be sure they reflect the university's goals and mission.

Like all change, though, this entails an element of uncertainty, and with it fear.

Everyone knows that public universities aren't magically going to see more tax dollars coming their way, so one program's growth could mean another's demise.

And that's one of the biggest problems with the secretive approach EKU has used to sort things out: it fuels fear and distrust.

A 22-member task force has been meeting behind closed doors for three months. The Board of Regents also met in private April 30 and will again next month when the task force presents its recommendations.

Regents chairman Craig Turner told Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford that the point of this exercise is to "get everybody going in one direction in a vision that says the key is for Eastern to get better."

However, that's going to be tough since the faculty and staff have largely been excluded from participating in building the vision or having any input into the direction.

It's also troubling that EKU, which has already gained a black eye in terms of openness by pursuing, unsuccessfully and at great expense, a long legal fight to keep information about the firing of the manager of its new performing arts center out of public view, is again trying to keep its public business private.

That skates too close to violating Kentucky's freedom of information statutes, as First Amendment lawyer Jon Fleischaker told Blackford.

"I think the idea that a public university can treat itself like a private corporation when they're dealing with public dollars is inappropriate and it's against the law," Fleischaker said.

This is all doubly concerning because a new president, Michael Benson, will take over at EKU August 1 from retiring Doug Whitlock, who set this budget examination in motion in February.

Benson has been kept apprised of the task force's work and has approved the changes made so far.

It will be tough for Benson to get buy-in from a faculty and staff that have been shut out of the process. We hope Benson will make it a first order of business to change the administrative culture at EKU to one that respects both the campus community and the law, by sharing as much information as possible.