Year in and year out, the student reporters at the University of Georgia’s Red and Black (full disclosure: it’s my old law school) set an example for the journalism world — college and professional — about the power of public records.
UGA journalists have won national recognition for their aggressive reporting on sexually harassing behavior by professors that their university downplayed and at times inadequately punished. They even fought successfully to establish the best legal precedent in the country entitling the public to information about usually-secretive campus disciplinary proceedings.
In a recent piece by reporter Daniel Burnett, the Red and Black once again uses open-records requests to peer inside a perhaps-unseemly practice that their university might have preferred to keep under wraps — profiteering off students’ credit-card debt. Burnett’s arresting lead says it all (and makes it impossible not to read further):
A multi-million dollar deal cut between the University and Bank of America — one that pays the University big bucks to sell student, alumni and faculty contact information to bank solicitors — pays even bigger bucks if those using the Bank of America credit cards go into debt.
The paper goes on to report that 700 other colleges nationwide (or, as with UGA, their affiliated fundraising foundations) have similar arrangements with Bank of America. The agreements obligate the colleges to provide the bank with lists of prospective customers, and (according to contracts obtained by the Red and Black, though the university denies this) pay a bonus if the customer carries a balance, which gives the institution a stake in every pizza-and-beer run.
If you’re a journalist at a public institution that’s not the University of Georgia, run don’t walk to the SPLC’s Open Records Request Letter Generator and write away for a copy of any credit-card royalty agreement with your university or its foundation. And let us know what you find.