More aware in Delaware? House bill would, finally, open university meetings and records

In 1743, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Gazette published a notice announcing the arrival of a new public institution of higher learning:

We are informed that there is a Free-School opened at the House of Mr. Alison in Chester County, for the Promotion of Learning, where all Persons may be instructed in the Languages and some other Parts of Polite Literature, without any Expences for their Education.

In the centuries since Presbyterian clergyman Francis Alison opened the doors of a 12-student academy in his modest home two miles outside the village of New London, much about the University of Delaware has radically transformed.

But this much has not: The public had no legal right to demand access to its meetings or records in 1743, and it still doesn’t today.

State Rep. John Kowalko, D-Dover, is attempting to drag UD and Delaware State University out of the 18th century with a bill filed May 12 that would add the state’s two public universities to the definition of “public body” for purposes of Delaware’s open-records and open-meetings laws.

According to The News Journal of Wilmington, university officials are viewing the bill skeptically as a possible impediment to recruiting top faculty, while the powerful House speaker appears philosophically opposed to it.

Still, HB 126 is more modest than many sunshine laws. It would require disclosure only of documents “relating to the expenditure of public funds,” suggesting that some significant subset of records might still lawfully be kept confidential.

Virtually every state college in America is subject to public-records and public-meetings laws, and the trend is toward greater openness. In 2008, Pennsylvania amended its antiquated Right-to-Know Act to at least require partial disclosure by “state related” institutions such as Penn State and Temple that previously evaded scrutiny altogether.

It’s remarkable that, in 2011, a state institution would feel entitled to conduct the public’s business and spend the public’s money behind closed doors. If secrecy is such a great competitive advantage, then you have to wonder how UD — with the benefit of the nation’s strongest anti-disclosure laws — perpetually lags in the ratings behind schools in California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana (among others), all of which have superior public-access statutes.