Opinion: The Closed U

As administrators circle the wagons, open discourse, and citizens, lose out.

Special to the Daily Chris Ison is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He was the Daily editor-in-chief in 1982-83, and later was an investigative reporter and editor at the Star Tribune. He won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1990.

We are hearing much about saving the University of MinnesotaâÄôs core mission these days, and we should. A $4.5 billion state deficit seriously threatens that mission, and it should be front and center as University administrators fight to make their case at the state Legislature. But while theyâÄôre at it, they might want to reread the mission themselves. ItâÄôs a quick read, after all âÄî about five paragraphs covering three core values: research and discovery, teaching and learning, outreach and public service. ItâÄôs that outreach and public service mission âÄî described with words such as âÄúeffective public engagementâÄù and âÄúsharing knowledgeâÄù âÄî that could use some extra attention. Because what the University runs on, of course, is public money. And evidence is mounting that the University isnâÄôt much interested in an open, public dialogue that must be part of the deal. WeâÄôve seen a few examples lately: Key stakeholders of the UniversityâÄôs graduate programs were blindsided recently by the announcement that the Graduate School would be restructured. Graduate studies directors and student leaders told the Daily they didnâÄôt learn of the decision until much of the public did. Members of a task force on ethics reform in the Medical School complained recently of being kept in the dark about key issues, including the fact that a co-chair of the task force himself had been reprimanded for a âÄúseriousâÄù conflict of interest violation. That came to light only after the Star Tribune reported it. Later, some task force members had to learn from the Daily that a draft report based on many months of their own work had been weakened. The administration has flogged the Daily over its reporting, of course, even while faculty and others have found that reporting essential. That only furthers the UniversityâÄôs reputation as an institution that, while espousing education and knowledge, is intent on choking the flow of information to the public âÄî even while it asks the public for hundreds of millions of dollars each year. What much of the public doesnâÄôt know is the extent of the UniversityâÄôs effort to undermine public awareness. Last month, a message to University directors and others warned that the Daily was trying to report on the potential effects of proposed budget cuts. The audacity! University News Service Director Daniel Wolter urged those contacted by Daily reporters to call him before agreeing to talk. He expressed concern about problems âÄúthat will result from using this particular venue for that purpose,âÄù and said heâÄôd be âÄúhappyâÄù to offer a no comment on their behalf. A similar e-mail was distributed just more than a year ago, complaining of âÄúnumerous uncoordinated administration comments giving too much informationâÄù to the media. The message directed all who receive press inquiries to route them to the News Service to ensure âÄúthe UniversityâÄôs reputation is both protected and advanced through the news media.âÄù In other words: DonâÄôt talk so that we can spin. Such messages arenâÄôt meant to be seen by newspaper staffers, of course, but they do see them. Why? Because people at the University who believe in truth, freedom of expression and open public discourse send them. As a journalism instructor, IâÄôve spent years helping Daily reporters navigate through requests for information and public records. The resistance can be formidable. Delays, rejections and obfuscation are commonplace. ItâÄôs not just Daily reporters who have complained. Many will remember the controversial search for a University president in 2002. The Daily, the Star Tribune and other newspapers had to sue to get the names of the finalists for the position. After a District Court judge ruled that the University had violated the law, the University appealed to the state Court of Appeals. When it lost again, it appealed to the state Supreme Court, only to lose again. The University stands out among other agencies in foot-dragging, according to Dan Browning, an editor at the Star Tribune who has taught journalism and worked with students on public record requests. âÄúThe U of M is notoriously bad in responding to requests for information,âÄù he said. âÄúThat’s their reputation.âÄù To be sure, Daily reporters arenâÄôt perfect, and at times file difficult requests. But they are as dedicated and courteous as my old colleagues at the Star Tribune. They share the same passion âÄî to help us all understand issues important to this community. ThatâÄôs why faculty, legislators, the professional media and others read the Daily routinely. It covers, better than anyone, what is arguably the stateâÄôs most precious public asset. In an interview for this column, Wolter said that he works hard to get the Daily the information it wants as quickly as possible, despite large numbers of requests. (Disclosure: I have an in-law who works at the News Service. We donâÄôt discuss these issues.) Wolter said he treats Daily journalists as professionals while helping educate them about access to information. Sounds reasonable. But Wolter could use at least as much educating. Professional journalists usually arenâÄôt forced to communicate with public information offices only through e-mail, as Wolter generally demands of Daily reporters. ItâÄôs a system that inhibits good-faith communication and reasonably quick access. Most professional journalists arenâÄôt pressured to go through one office to cover, on a daily basis, a community of more than 60,000 people âÄî only to be chastised for being a burden on that office. WolterâÄôs e-mail policy does give him plenty of chances to scold reporters for doing their jobs. Take the recent e-mail sent to a reporter after she politely explained her role as a journalist and said she hoped to forge âÄúa more professional and collaborativeâÄù relationship with his office. Wolter responded in part by criticizing her calls to other University offices, saying âÄúthereâÄôs nothing in their job description about talking to the media.âÄù He complained of how âÄúmost people who have been at the âÄòUâÄô for more than a couple of years also have a story of how the Daily wasted their time in some way.âÄù ItâÄôs a petty claim that would be fodder for jokes in most newsrooms. But for Daily reporters, itâÄôs another reminder of who wields the power. Since this edition of the Daily is written by newspaper alumni, itâÄôs worth noting that it wasnâÄôt always this way. Trish Van Pilsum, now an investigative reporter with Fox 9 News, remembers few problems when she covered the University administration for the Daily during the early 1980s. âÄúI would walk in and out of the presidentâÄôs office,âÄù she recalls. âÄúI had easy access to anybody in the administration that I wanted to talk to. I had ready access to any information I wanted.âÄù Pam Louwagie, the editor-in-chief in 1994-95, said her reporters had little trouble with the News Service. âÄúWe could call whoever we wanted,âÄù said Louwagie, now a projects reporter at the Star Tribune. Sarah McKenzie, the DailyâÄôs managing editor in 2000-01, remembers few obstacles. âÄúIt seemed like we could call any department head,âÄù said McKenzie, now the editor of the Southwest Journal and Downtown Journal in Minneapolis. âÄúIf there was something controversial, I donâÄôt remember them trying to manage that.âÄù The University survived then. Circling the wagons wonâÄôt help it thrive today. Many of the stateâÄôs best minds gather here. Shutting down the information they and the public need to help find solutions is bad business. And it violates the spirit of the UniversityâÄôs mission. If the leaders believe in that mission, itâÄôs time to walk the talk.