Schools use competitive advantage exemption to restrict access

ARKANSAS —The Arkansas Times is continuing its fight to force the University of Arkansas to reveal the proposal used in winning a $300 million grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. The grant, administered by the heirs of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, is the largest ever awarded to a public university.

The Arkansas Times will argue a motion for reconsideration later this month, challenging the decision made by Judge Chris Piazza on Aug. 5 in Pulaski County Circuit Court. Piazza ruled in a groundbreaking decision that the University of Arkansas did not have to comply with the state Freedom of Information Act [FOIA], on the grounds that disclosing the details of the proposal would put the university at a disadvantage in its efforts to woo benefactors in the future. This is the first time that a public entity has succeeded in using the “competitive advantage” clause as a basis for withholding information in Arkansas. The exemption clause was originally written for private businesses bidding on government contracts.

If the court ruling stands, it could have serious implications for journalists seeking information from universities or organizations in the future, said Doug Smith, co-plaintiff in the case and an Arkansas Times reporter.

Universities could say “no we don’t have to give you the information because it will put us at a disadvantage with other institutions soliciting contributions,” Smith said. There is also the danger of big money influencing the policy of universities. We want to know all the details if any, or strings the Walton family has put on this grant,” he added.

Smith, who is a former university dean, sued to gain access to the proposal after the University of Arkansas stalled for six weeks.

Piazza said in his ruling that the college had been “overzealous” in its efforts to keep its records secret, but did not find that their efforts amounted to any egregious conduct on the school’s part.

Some information made public about the dealings between the university and the Waltons have raised red flags for some.

John White, chancellor of the Fayetteville campus, admitted in a newspaper interview and at the Aug. 5 hearing that he gave a commitment to the Waltons to remain as chancellor for a period of five years.

Judge Piazza is scheduled to hear the newspaper’s motion later this month.

Also, University of Texas Investment Management Company, the company that oversees $14 billion in investment funds for University of Texas and Texas A&M, interpreted the “competitive advantage” clause of the Texas open records law to its benefit. The management company changed a policy to remove higher-risk investment details from public access. Officials argued that some investment managers will not work with institutions that require detailed public disclosure.