Chancellor Hagerott Must Address Abuse Of Open Records Laws At The Universities

open records

“University administrators too often conduct themselves as though they’re above the rules,” writes Tom Dennis in the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial today. “Case in point: North Dakota State University’s refusal to explain why it suspended a key executive for two weeks without pay in 2012.”

Dennis is referring to the situation involving former women’s athletics director Lynn Dorn which I mentioned in a post yesterday. Dorn was suspended for some sort of misconduct involving a student, but NDSU has refused to make specifics about the incident public citing a ridiculously broad interpretation of federal privacy laws.

“[Chancellor Mark Hagerott] should exercise his authority to make sure not only that North Dakotans get the info they should have received three years ago, but also that the same stonewalling doesn’t happen again, at NDSU or anywhere else,” writes Dennis.

Indeed, this sort of situation if a test of Hagerott’s gumption as a leader. Will he stand up to this sort of blatant abuse of open records laws, or will he roll over for the state’s university presidents as his predecessor Larry Skogen was want to do?

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Indeed, this sort of situation if a test of Hagerott’s gumption as a leader. Will he stand up to this sort of blatant abuse of open records laws, or will he roll over for the state’s university presidents[/mks_pullquote]

Because this situation with Dorn is hardly the only area where the university system has been downright deceptive. Consider that the university also used the federal privacy law dodge to hide what disciplinary actions, if any, a group of NDSU football players faced for forging thousands of phony signatures on two ballot measure petitions, a fraud that resulted in the derailing of two very expensive campaigns in 2012.

I requested details of that discipline and was denied it by NDSU. When I filed a complaint with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem he ruled that while the university broke the law in not communicating to me which statute allowed them to deny my request (I suspect they came up with the justification after the fact), his hands were tied when it came to backing NDSU’s interpretation of federal laws. Section 44-04-21.1 of the North Dakota Century Code states, “the attorney general shall base the opinion on the facts given by the public entity.”

If NDSU says it’s a fact that federal law prohibits them from releasing information, then state law requires that the Attorney General accept that interpretation.

Thankfully that sort of nonsense may be coming to an end now that the university system’s lawyers work under the Attorney General’s office, but it is illustrative of the sort of shenanigans Hagerott needs to get under control.

Because mistrust of the university system runs deep. Last year, in responding to a bid by NDSU to run their own email system independent from the rest of the university system, Rep. Bob Martinson (R-Bismarck) told me that he believed NDSU was purposefully deleting emails rather than turning them over to open records requests. In emails I obtained, NDUS IT director Lisa Feldner – who is currently serving as Hagerott’s Chief of Staff – wrote of a “lack of trust” in allowing NDSU to control their own email system.

Higher education policy is always contentious, but it’s all the more so when policymakers and the public feel like they aren’t getting honest answers from university leaders.

Hagerott needs to fix that, or be doomed to the status quo.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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