Freedom of Information Act: Gift or nuisance?

A new article from the Washington Post says the drama between University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan and Rector Helen Dragas has far from passed.

The article, wonderfully written by Jenna Johnson, suggests a “struggle for control of the university’s agenda and priorities” continues behind the scenes, as evidenced by numerous emails obtained by the Washington Post.

The emails show Dragas sent Sullivan a list of 65 goals to achieve before the end of the school year, something Sullivan contested as being unrealistic. Sullivan suggested this in an email to the university’s governing body, the Board of Visitors.

“I am not averse to stretch goals,” Sullivan said in emails, according to the article, “but I also do not care to be set up to fail.”

The article goes on to ask one of the Board of Visitors’ newest members his thoughts on the tension. According to the article, Richmond businessman Willam H. Goodwin was “angry that the internal e-mail was shared with The Post and argued that the news media should not report on issues that cast U-Va. in a poor light. He said there is no tension between the board and the administration.”

But here’s the kicker, as Goodwin is quoted as saying:

“You are making a mountain of a molehill. My involvement is really going smoothly. The only deterrent is the Freedom of Information Act.”

The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, can be a journalist’s – and the public’s – best friend. Each state has a different version. Here’s an excerpt from Virginia’s code:

“…The General Assembly ensures the people of the Commonwealth ready access to public records in the custody of a public body or its officers and employees…. The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government.”

Transparency has been the primary issue facing the University of Virginia since last summer’s attempted ouster and reinstatement of Sullivan. And apparently, it continues to be.

Even FOIA requests obtained by local media have not yielded many answers to the questions raised during the saga.

But to suggest that FOIA is a deterrent to how a public institution is run is simply absurd. Public institutions, by definition, are funded by the public. The public should have a right to know how its dollars are being spent and how its institutions are being run.

Furthermore, Goodwin’s argument suggesting the media should not cover items that cast a negative light over Thomas Jefferson’s university goes against the First Amendment. Journalism isn’t meant to please everyone all the time. The point of journalism is to be a watchdog, especially when it comes to the public – public institutions, public funds and the people who manage them.

After what many have called an embarrassing and disgraceful shakeup at UVa last summer, it’s now even more of a pressing issue for the media to cover what public business happens beyond closed doors. But that’s always easier said than done.

Many of the questions asked on June 10, 2012 – the day Sullivan’s (forced) resignation was announced – are still left unanswered today. And there’s been little to no effort on behalf of the Board of Visitors to change that, which only means pressure from the press will continue.

It’s not just a matter of importance for university students, faculty, staff and alumni. It’s a matter of importance for the public.

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