The information machine at Ohio State is starting to show rust.
When something is a matter of public record, it is the obligation of the university, as a public institution, to offer that information upon request. Granted, there are hundreds of exemptions to state and federal open record laws, but it has nonetheless become increasingly difficult to get university officials to open their books for us.
As students, as staff or simply as members of the public, we have the right to know the affairs of the university. As journalists at The Lantern, we do our best to find out what information is important and get it to students quickly and accurately. In the age of transparency, we should have quick, reliable routes to public information. Unfortunately, we face a bureaucratic labyrinth that, all too often, keeps us from doing our jobs.
The university should know that this kind of secrecy, intentional or otherwise, can quickly disillusion the community.
It would be too easy to characterize university officials as wily, malicious gatekeepers of information, guarding their affairs with a fervor unseen since the Nixon administration. But that’s simply not the case. Nine times out of 10 when we are blocked from information vital to our reporting, it can be attributed to a breakdown in communication.
At an institution as complex as OSU, it’s understandable that, on occasion, information might get tangled between office walls and require an extra phone call to sort out. But what we have discovered time after time is that, somewhere, the wires aren’t connected.
There simply seems to be a misunderstanding among university officials about which information is public and which is not.
When we were reporting last spring on a teaching assistant who encouraged her students to cheat, officials threw a FERPA blanket over the case and barred us from any information. The teaching assistant worked for the Chemistry Department and her misconduct occurred there. She attended the College of Pharmacy.
We did not ask for any information about her academic life at the College of Pharmacy, information that FERPA clearly applies to. We sought information about the work of a rogue employee of the Chemistry Department.
Similarly, when we attempted to get information regarding donations to the university and about a recent anti-sweatshop initiative, we were met with dubious claims of attorney-client privilege and obscure “protection” clauses.
We aren’t attorneys, and more often than not, neither are the people we end up talking to. But the information game is one bound by thousands of rules unknown to anyone without years of legal training. While officials can’t be expected to know every one of these rules, they should have enough training to know the rules that are directly pertinent to their jobs.
People involved with donations should know that the amount of money donated to the university is a public record. And if they are legally bound to withhold information, they should be able to cite the section of state or federal public records law. In many cases, they have been unable to do so.
There seems to be a fairly simple solution: Give legal training to university officials who serve as spokespeople. If a person’s job is to handle university records, they should undergo training to learn and stay up-to-date with public records law.
Admittedly, there are those at OSU who do everything that can be expected to help us get information. But when routes of communication break down, and when other officials are confused about their legal obligations, their job becomes just as difficult as ours.
The fact is, we aren’t trying to bring down the university; we just want to report the news. And if we do our best to understand the law, so should the university’s information gatekeepers.