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.