When college students ask to see their president’s expense report

 

 

Correction at bottom

College journalists are aware of the problems at our universities. We face crushing student loans. We know too much of our tuition dollars are being spent on administrators, not instruction. We also know too many of our fellow students are being sexual assaulted, but our universities would rather pretend the epidemic doesn't exist.

This is not to say we do not love our institutions. We do. But that affection is not unquestioning. We want to make our communities, our campuses, better. That is what journalism is all about, a relentless march toward a knowable truth. The only way to do that is to have the information necessary for a community discussion about how to fix the problems.

Chief Operating Officer of the President's Council, State Universities of Michigan, Daniel Hurley argued in a September guest column that public universities operated openly and were "perhaps the healthiest of our state’s public institutions."

We respectfully disagree.

A statewide Freedom of Information Act audit our Society of Professional Journalists chapter at Central Michigan University directed at state universities revealed a system largely hostile to any sort of reasonable openness.

In our audit, we requested sexual assault police reports, board of trustee expenses and presidential discretionary spending. We found that it would cost more than $20,000 to receive the documents from all 15 Michigan public universities. The requests were crafted specifically to make retrieval easy and to minimize “review.” After all, how much redacting would need to be made from a university president’s expense report?

The responses ranged from the righteous to the ridiculous. Michigan Technological University, Eastern Michigan University and Oakland University granted all three requests without charge, while Lake Superior State University granted two requests for free.

Michigan State University, however, estimated it would take up to 80 hours at a cost of more than $2,400 just to search for the records. To even start the request, a student would have to pay a $1,200 deposit. It would take another, undetermined number of personnel hours to “review” the documents.

What this means is that an MSU student journalist or activist, likely already facing thousands of dollars of debt, would have to pay at least two more grand to learn how their university president spends merely a tiny fraction of tuition money.

Sprinkled among the outrage were some charges that were just odd.

Lake State Superior University re-directed our sexual assault FOIA, for instance, to the Sault Ste. Marie Police Department. This seemed reasonable since the school has no campus police. The cost to obtain the incident reports was estimated to be $50.02. We were curious as to how the department came up with such a specific rate, so we asked. SSMPD said it would take an employee two hours to gather an unknown number of reports. They broke down the charge as follows: $17.08 per hour for salary and 46.43 percent of that ($7.93) for fringe benefits, making the charge $25.01 per hour. Interestingly, Sault Ste Marie’s Summary of Freedom of Information Act Procedures, which is required by state law to be posted publicly, says the per-hour charge will include a “40 percent charge to cover or partially cover the cost of fringe benefits.”

We applaud the universities that responded within legal time limits and without charge. We are outraged by the vast majority of others that wanted collectively thousands of dollars for simple requests.

While our own CMU released the board of trustee expenses for free (which showed that trustees spent close to $27,000 last year), the university wanted more than $400 to fill the other two requests. While this is more conservative than many other universities, it is still out of reach for many members of the public.

Our SPJ audit shows that, at too many public universities, members of the public are priced out of public records. We know of no student or campus organization who could possibly afford to pay more than $20,000 to obtain these critical records. Of course, university administrators are aware of this, and some take advantage of the system. They charge not because it is the right thing to do or even that they need to cover their costs (really, MSU – 80 hours for presidential expenses?), but because some administrators know that in doing so, they will not have to actually make the information public.

And this is the outrage. Students are not ATMs. We are people with a right to know and a right to take part in the discussions that shape our communities.

Correction: The original version of this column misstated the amount of expenses incurred last year by the board of trustees at Central Michigan University. This figure has been corrected.

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Comments

R.L.
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 9:56am
Transparency comes at a price. Those who make the rules know this all to well. With todays technology it should not take 80 hours for MSU to produce the Presidents expense account. This policy seems to be evident at all levels of government. I wonder if they keep two or three sets of books to answer these type of inquiries? When it comes to taxes just remember when Cruze becomes our next president you will figure and file your income tax on a post card. Ya right, tell that to the tens of thousands of CPA's and H and R Block people. Have a nice day. Peace. R.L..
sue sue
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:25am
More upsetting is listening to the frivolous catering budgets for university departments. New employee hired, lets order a food, we have a meeting--more food. Students are eating ramen noodles and the staff is dining. Staff entertaining and catering expenses, other than for conferences should be banned. Oh, and don't forget the entertaining that goes on at the football games for staff. Talk about ivory tower! The students (customers) are sitting in the rain getting drenched and running out of the stadium while lightening strikes while the university leadership is safely nestled in their luxury suites. Where is the university president who sits with the students? New faculty should dine in the dining halls not at the Gandy Dancer. We have lost our way in terms of serving the customer who are going into major debt. So SAD
DT
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:28am
What is the role of the public interest FOIA fee waiver. Is this a tool our student journalists could better utilize?
Jeremy
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 4:16pm
The public interest fee waiver is voluntary. Government entities do not have to honor it, although many of those that value transparency in government regular do.
Candace Dittenber
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:41am
Sounds like the secretaries and administrative assistants should be replaced with more efficient personnel. That information should be readily accessible.
Ed Haynor
Wed, 04/06/2016 - 1:11pm
I’m very impressed of the work that Arielle Hines, Nick Green and Kelly Rocheleau have done in attempting to obtain information from our public so-called higher education institutions using the Freedom of Information Act. Their article is very well written and makes readers aware of the pitfalls citizens experience when attempting to obtain information from public entities, citizen taxpayers themselves own. Because of the behavior and arrogance of some university officials, Mr. Power could have included many of these Michigan University leaders in his article released at the same time titled, “Oligarchs and demagogues, as America teeters.” I am though comforted knowing about the intelligence, commitment and common sense of the student writers listed above, since they will likely be part of the next generation of citizens who will be left in our country to clean up the mess left by those who have abandoned President Lincoln’s vision of America as a “government of the people, by the people and for the people not perishing from the earth,” since most citizens running government and higher education today lack the courage in keeping President Lincoln’s vision alive. I would encourage Mr. Power to recruit other student leaders in Michigan to post commentary on Bridge. It’s important for Michigan citizens to know what’s on the minds of these young people. Our leaders of the future deserve this opportunity since the majority of Michigan citizens have deemed it necessary to elect those who are stupid and crazy to run government and likely higher education too.
Doug
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 8:12am
Freedom of Information is important, but someone has to pay for the labor involved in accessing and preparing the information, including time consuming reviews to redact confidential information and data. Who should pay the cost of fulfilling this request: taxpayers? current students? Absolutely not. You have a right to see the information, but others should not have to foot the bill to gratify your curiosity. Tip: next time, ask for what you really need.
M.I.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 8:32am
This is exactly spot on. These journalism students are learning very, very poor practices from their mentors, it seems. Just look at the language of their real requests against the "headlines." It doesn't add up at all. And they are claiming to be outraged that they didn't immediately get what they WANT (rather than what they actually need) with zero effort. There is very real, time-consuming work involved in providing public records. People clearly have no idea how universities function.
Barry
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 9:08am
As I was reminded often when working for the US Government, "You are being paid by the taxpayers anyway. Why should you be concerned what your assignment is today." The citizens are paying the salary of those assigned to do the information gathering and reviews, in any event. Fulfilling the FOIA request is just part of the everyday job we are already paying for. The only requirement for payment should be to replace any materials used, such as paper.
Sy Jensen
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 4:34am
These students ought to focus on their studies instead of going on a purposeless and meaningless expedition for the sake of transparency. How will this help them pay back their student loans?
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 2:05pm
The negativity of the comments towards the students and their requests is appalling. They are doing exactly what the drafters of FOIA expected engaged citizens and journalists to do. Their information they seek is relevant not only to students and members of the university communities who got the requests, but to all of us as citizens and taxpayers. It is certainly valid and in the public interest to know how identically situated public entities respond to identical requests.