Opinion

Brandt: Open records for state-relateds

State-related universities should adhere completely to the Right-to-Know law.

Joe BrandtThough a broader interpretation of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law may create more paperwork for university administration, taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going. At an Oct. 21 hearing, Pennsylvania’s four state-related institutions testified before the Senate’s State Government Committee in Harrisburg to argue against a broader interpretation of the Right-to-Know law, which establishes open records for most of the state institutions. The state-relateds – Temple, Pennsylvania State University, Lincoln University and the University of Pittsburgh – are only required to file a yearly report that denotes “the salaries of their officers and directors and the highest 25 salaries paid to employees of the institution,” state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff noted in a memorandum outlining his desire to broaden the scope of the Right-to-Know law. State politicians, such as Benninghoff, would like to see more information available from the state-related universities than the current minimum.

According to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, “every record of [a state-funded entity] is presumed to be public.” Adding to that, it states that an agency “bears burden to prove” if a record should not be public. State-related institutions like Temple exist in a “gray area” between public funding and private control.

Those in favor of broadening the law, particularly Arthur Hochner, president of Temple Association of University Professionals, argue that there ought to be as much transparency as possible since there is precedent that publicly funded institutions are accessible to the public.

“Indiana University, where President Theobald comes from, is covered by Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act,” Hochner said in an email. “Complying with [Right-to-Know] requests is seen in PA’s 14 state universities [in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education].”

Transparency among universities is not uncommon, as Hochner said, but for these state-related universities, policies have been opaque.

The way the state-related institutions argue against fuller inclusion in the Right-to-Know law is that they are special institutions which, due to their service to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, should not be bogged down by transparency laws to which state agencies are subject. A 2011 Penn State report titled “Moving the Commonwealth Forward” notes that the state-related institutions are key players and “economic engines” in their home communities and the state. Temple, as “Moving the Commonwealth Forward” reports, “directly employs nearly 7,500 Commonwealth residents.”

In a joint testimony from the hearing, the state-related universities wrote in a footnote that they “acknowledge that there are several instances where state-related universities have certain benefits and obligations of public status, but believe that these do not result in them having the essential characteristics of a state agency for RTK purposes.” The footnote argued that since state-related universities are “nonprofit entities which serve the public good,” they are not state agencies and thus should not be subject to the Right-to-Know law.

The problem is that definitions of “public good” can differ drastically. The Temple administration, as well as the administrations of the other state-related universities, sees public good as something that requires a degree of opacity. These institutions argue in the joint testimony that plenty of open records are already available, since the institutions must submit a detailed report to the Pennsylvania Auditor General, as well as information that must be disclosed to the Internal Revenue Service and other information that must be provided under the School Code. Representatives from Temple’s administration did not respond to requests seeking comment about the Right-to-Know law.

“I suspect that one of the main reasons the university does not want to be covered by the RTK is simply the potential cost of compliance,” law professor Mark Rahdert said in an email. “It would be a costly and sensitive process to identify which records are subject to disclosure and which are not.”

Temple keeps many records pertaining to students, faculty and even the hospital, and sorting through them would be time-consuming at best. However, this arduous process is precisely the nature of obtaining free information. According to Philly.com, prisoners have abused the law to harass people involved in their charges, and though the law may impose an increased “administrative workload” on the universities, there must be more accountability for taxpayer dollars.

“Where do the athletic scholarships, special academic advising and athletes’ room and board get budgeted?” Hochner said. “You can’t tell from [the current information available to the public].”

“Temple’s administration has had a decades-long habit of acting public when it benefits them, such as [when asking for]  state funding and acting private when it benefits them, such as keeping tight control over information or having full autonomy over such decisions as tuition and fees,” Hochner added.

Obviously no sole person, institution or interest group can define what public good really is. However, if Temple and the other state-relateds are going to claim to serve the public good, then denying taxpayers and students knowledge of where their taxes and tuition are going is an outright contradiction of that statement.

Additional transparency for an institution that receives some public funding is not “public bad” unless the institution is less able to perform its function. Opacity in certain areas is not excusable just because more paperwork and money would be required in order to be transparent.

If Temple is going to declare itself to be “Philadelphia’s public university,” then it should live up to that claim.

Joe Brandt can be reached at joseph.brandt@temple.edu.

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