What I still don’t know

The Editor-in-Chief reflects on the unanswered questions he still has from his time reporting at The Temple News.

In just a few days, after four years at The Temple News, I’ll graduate. I’ll miss a lot of people here — professors, advisers, classmates, colleagues. I have learned so much, and yet there is so much that I still do not know. It’s not for lack of trying, either, but mostly just because I was told “no.”

For instance, how did the Board of Trustees, the pre-eminent decisionmakers here, decide they would schedule a vote to remove former President Neil Theobald from his position this July? Was it truly “unanimous” as Board decisions tend to be? Was it a unanimous decision to cut five sports from the athletic department my freshman year? What has the Board discussed in its executive committee meetings, the minutes for which have not been posted online in 8 years? Can we get some answers?

Earlier this year, I learned that trustees who are public government employees might be vulnerable to Pennsylvania’s relatively toothless Right-to-Know law and could be asked to hand over Board records. So I filed a request under this law, asking Lt. Gov. Michael Stack, who has served as a trustee since 2005, for his emails and other correspondence related to the ousting of Theobald.

Stack’s office told me no. I appealed. The state Office of Open Records told me no, but in many more pages; basically, Stack serves on the Board as an individual, and when he serves on the Board he magically forgets all the parts of him that are the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, and therefore his office cannot be asked for records relating to Temple. I did not get a firm answer as to whether Stack ever corresponded about Temple through his Lieutenant Governor email account. I got a similar rejection when I asked for records from Ronald Donatucci, a trustee who serves as Philadelphia County’s Register of Wills.

Anyway, like I said, I was mostly just told “no.”

I am proud to be a Temple alumnus, educated here about interviewing, writing and the role of journalism in a democratic society. (I learned many other things too: a friend of Malcolm X taught my race and diversity Gen-Ed, a Freedom Rider taught me about the culture of the 1960s and a founder of Men’s Health magazine taught me about longform storytelling.) But despite the rich experience I have had here, I am nonetheless concerned that a university can wax poetic about democracy in classes and yet be led so undemocratically. In all the Board meetings I’ve attended, I cannot recall a single time when a trustee voted against a decision on the agenda. Sometimes, a trustee would ask a question and there would be a quick discussion. That was it.

Of course, open deliberation and transparency are key parts of a democracy. And they ought to be part of our bureaucratic island in North Philadelphia, too, so that people like me, about to enter the workforce with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, can rest assured that the money we’ll be paying back for the next decade or two is in good hands.

So perhaps more discussion of these transparency concerns will help us get there. One of my last acts as Editor-in-Chief was to help nominate the state-related institutions of higher education in Pennsylvania for the Golden Padlock, an “award” from Investigative Reporters and Editors given out each year to the least transparent agency.

In our application, we mention how the Right-to-Know law allows us to be denied access to the records of the trustees’ possible conflicts of interest disclosure forms, records that are required to be kept according to the school’s bylaws.

“Journalists cannot successfully file RTK requests to obtain basic information that would allow them to complete their jobs as journalists and hold these universities accountable,” we wrote.

While I will miss all the friends I’ve made here, I won’t miss the frustrating rejections.

The Temple News has always tried to stay ahead of administrative spin and tell the whole truth. This week, we concluded our three-part series on the university’s relationship with the community and found that despite many administrators telling us otherwise, community residents either don’t use the resources available to them here or don’t know they exist. It’s part of a tradition that began my freshman year to spend the spring semester reporting out a big issue and explaining it cohesively in a piece that runs in the final issue.

Though my tenure will end here without some key answers, I am happy to have pursued these questions and I’m hopeful that the next generations of watchdogs will continue to hold officials’ feet to the fire.

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