Opinion

Fichera: Behind secrecy, a Temple of mystery

Fichera advises Temple to be forthcoming with information.

Angelo FicheraCuriosity.

All great thoughts and revelations at universities begin with it. It’s a natural wonderment that, when acted upon, is followed by inquiries.

For my staff at The Temple News and me, that’s meant requesting all sorts of information from Temple. The General Activity Fee distribution. The full details of the athletics budget. The identities of people arrested. A planned annual contribution by Temple to a neighborhood improvement district. The meetings of a task force evaluating off-campus living. The dusty year-old findings of said task force.

It’s at that point that we’ve often found ourselves pitted against brass gatekeepers – administrators who’ve often rejected disclosure on the grounds that, put simply, they don’t have to oblige.

And, with no avenues to formally request information that mandate a response with justification, we’re usually left scratching our heads.

The kind of administrative mindset I’m describing is poison to any institution, but especially one that prides itself on transcending the status quo. (Ironically, university officials have denied sharing how much was spent on the Temple Made campaign that suggests just that.)

Make no mistake: Stonewalling is nothing new. During my freshman year, I was denied access to information about the General Activity Fee – a $45 fee paid by all full-time students each semester that now gets lumped under the vague University Services Fee. The total GAF fund is distributed to a number of bodies on campus.

Administrators declined to release the GAF breakdown in 2010  – and again did so when I revisited the issue the following year. Which departments and programs see which cut of the tuition-based fund remains a million-dollar question. Literally.

That non-disclosure reveals a larger culture at Temple that wrongly fails to recognize students as valid stakeholders in the community.

The university has long asked for state taxpayer dollars, but has tightened its lips when asked about its own finances. Students put on their Cherry-and-White lobbying attire for trips to Harrisburg, Pa., to play nice with legislators during the budget season, but are simultaneously denied financial information that directly affects them. That’s not right.

And forget about proactive reporting.

As Ali Watkins reports in News this week, the university hasn’t publicized many statistics of incidents handled through Student Code of Conduct. Those types of statistics may offer insight into the prevalence of certain complaints – like sexual assault, a severely underreported crime that’s only further tainted when people don’t discuss the realities of frequency.

Per Campus Safety Services records, nine rape allegations involving Temple students were reported during the 2011-12 school year. However, due to the fine print in the federal Clery Act,  not all of these were reported on the annual 2011 and 2012 safety reports.

But casting only some incidents into the public sphere leaves students and parents with a false image of what’s really going on around campus.

Templetown stretches blocks past campus lines, and administrators know it. Last year, Temple estimated that more students actually live off, but near, Main Campus than on it – an estimated 7,000 students and 4,500 students, respectively. What goes on near campus is equally as important to students as what’s happening on it. It’s not a legal issue; it’s a moral one.

Fear of information is nonsensical, and I question the source of such irrationality. I used to think it was Ann Weaver Hart’s administration – the one that neglected to even respond to interview requests by The Temple News during her last semester – but things have hardly improved this year. Enter: President Theobald’s time to shine in transparency.

The worst part is that I don’t think Temple has all that much to hide. But refusal to have an open dialogue suggests otherwise.

Where self-governance has surely cowered, outside pressure may prevail.

Last week, the state’s House of Representatives State Government Committee approved an amendment to the state’s Right-to-Know Law. If enacted, Temple and its fellow state-related universities – Penn State, Lincoln and Pittsburgh – would come fully under the law. It’d pop a bubble that has allowed the schools to avert public questioning.

It’s not about us – the journalists, that is. All students hold a valid interest in knowing exactly how Temple is operating, and why. Taxes and tuition should guarantee that much.

If the Right-to-Know amendment gets roadblocked, the Temple community should demand transparency from the university – all the way up to the president’s office. Not because of legal obligations, but because openness begets accountability.

Should it pass, may our curiosity yield the answer to the question I’m dying to ask: What’s Temple really made of?

Angelo Fichera can be reached at afichera@temple.edu or on Twitter @AJFichera.

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