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How ‘the public is priced out of public records’ by Michigan universities

By Anna Clark, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on April 5, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

In Michigan, transparency comes at a cost—and a seemingly arbitrary one at that.

The Society of Professional Journalists chapter at Central Michigan University recently conducted a FOIA audit of the state’s 15 public universities. It asked for a year’s worth of information on expenses from the university presidents and governing boards, and also police reports on campus sexual assaults. The goal: to compare how universities respond to requests for public information, and how much they charge.

No university denied the requests. But the price to fulfill all of them totaled more than $20,000. That ranged from Eastern Michigan University and two other schools that offered records for free, to the University of Michigan, where it would cost $2,774 just for presidential spending records. UM attributed that cost to its estimate that it would take 46.5 staff hours to search for records, and many more to review and duplicate documents.

In total, presidential expenses were the most costly records; it would take $10,750.93 to fulfill them all. Arielle Hines, president of CMU-SPJ and a senior journalism major, questioned the hours it would take to fulfill the requests. “What archaic system are you using?” she said. “You have to think they’d have some kind of auditing process for the president, and if not, that’s a bigger story.” (Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that Hines, the editor of CMU Insider, has pushed for more and better transparency at public universities.)

The universities also collectively charged $5,104.51 for sexual assault police reports and $4,759.54 for governing board expenses. Eight universities indicated that the requests would take more than a thousand hours to fulfill at up to $78 per hour. These are requests that Hines described, in a Bridge column, as “crafted specifically to make retrieval easy and to minimize ‘review.’” The audit, she wrote, demonstrated that “at too many public universities, members of the public are priced out of public records,” and “revealed a system largely hostile to any sort of reasonable openness.”

Student journalists on other campuses have conducted similar experiments that illustrate not only the costs of public information, but also the unpredictable rates. In 2011, The Michigan Daily, the campus paper at the University of Michigan (which I once wrote for), FOIA’d a year’s worth of information on parking tickets issued by campus police, and information about employee use of purchasing cards (PCards) from all the Big 10 universities. It found that most schools provided the information for free. Michigan State charged a total of $450. UM, on the other hand, charged $1240 for the ticket information, and “unspecified thousands of dollars” for PCard information.

Similarly, The Post at Ohio University led a statewide FOIA audit in January in which students from eight different campus papers requested, in person, identical information from 12 public universities. They did not identify themselves, and state law doesn’t require them to do so. Nearly half the requests were denied or obstructed.

David Jesse, higher education reporter at the Detroit Free Press, said that the CMU-SPJ experiment reflects his own experiences. His paper built a major investigation on charter schools (which often receive their charters from a public university) on FOIA requests, and its ongoing examination into campus sexual assaults relies on the same. The Freep also used FOIA to expose the Eastern Michigan University board’s reprimand of the then-president for a drinking incident.

“It’s often cost prohibitive for most organizations to pay for the material,” Jesse wrote in an email. “I happen to work for a media organization that has resources to pay, but even we get stretched when we get bills for thousands of dollars.”

That ultimately limits, or denies, public information to the reporters. Jesse said that he recently sent FOIA requests for emails and memos to one of the state’s large universities. He was warned of a big bill. Either the paper could pay it, or Jesse could truncate his request to cut the cost. He did the latter. “The problem is, what information am I missing because I limited the scope of what I was seeking in order to keep costs down?”

Sam Gringlas, a UM senior and former managing news editor at The Michigan Daily, said his paper ran into a similar wall when it FOIA’d information about the Department of Education’s Title IX investigation into UM’s handling of sexual misconduct cases. The Daily was told that it would cost thousands of dollars to fulfill their request. “That seemed like pretty much a huge fee that would eat into our budget significantly, so we went back through all the things on our list … and basically went shopping for documents. We can’t afford to get all we wanted.”

As it turned out, after paying one of two $445 fees for their pared down list, UM delayed the documents, and then ultimately rejected the FOIA request. (It refunded the money.) The paper’s appeal to the president’s office was also denied. The Daily ultimately ran a special report on sexual misconduct investigations at the university that relied on a narrative of a particular case, rather than on public documents.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, there has been a renewed push for open records reform in Michigan, a state with a notoriously poor reputation for transparency. The CMU-SPJ report raises a new point of needed change. Not only is the plain cost of information eyebrow-raising, but so are the scattershot rates and response times—even for identical information requests.

“Most of the decisions made by Michigan’s universities are made behind closed doors,” Jesse said. “FOIA allows the public to see the information the decision makers are seeing.”

To make that happen, Jesse said, we need more than a legal change. “It will take a university willing to be a leader and adapt the spirit of the law, and not just the letter of the law.”

Gringlas echoed this idea. “In my ideal world, journalists would not have to pay money for FOIA costs; it would just be the university doing its duty as a public institution.”

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