TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Private campus, public records — SMU’s Daily Campus puts on a clinic on covering sexual assaults, athletics spending

If your campus newspaper broke the story that big-name athletic director, recruited and paid top dollar to build a major-conference powerhouse, had helped instead dig the athletic program into an $18.6 million yearly deficit, you’d think you had a pretty strong semester.

For the staff of The Daily Campus at Southern Methodist University, it might not even have been the biggest story of the week.

That distinction may belong to the investigative team responsible for “Sweeping Rape Under the Rug,” a painstakingly reported package that begins with a gasp-inducing statistic: “Over the past 25 years, more than 100 SMU students reported they were sexually assaulted. Yet, in only one case … were the suspects successfully prosecuted.”

This powerhouse pair of stories exemplifies the type of enterprise reporting that can be done at a private institution even without the benefit of the freedom-of-information requests that more easily open doors at public universities.

Reporters for The Daily Campus used a combination of secondary sources — like courthouse files — that (unlike the college’s own records) are open for public inspection, plus some internal SMU documents they were able to obtain through old-fashioned digging and source-building.

For the sexual assault story, reporters tallied up every federally mandated Clery Act log entry and campus safety alert to arrive at the statistic that 99 percent of student rape reports don’t end with a criminal conviction. Most go through the student conduct board, which can impose no greater penalty than expulsion. This, the paper noted, creates the double-standard that non-student rapists go to court, and student rapists go to the dean’s office.

In a written response, the college bristled at the description of its disciplinary system as “secretive,” relying on federal statutes that make student disciplinary records confidential. But FERPA, the federal privacy law, specifically allows schools to disclose when a disciplinary hearing has resulted in the equivalent of a “guilty verdict” to sexual assault — so it is not federal law that keeps SMU from being more forthcoming about how rapes are punished.

The athletic department story, not to be overshadowed, is one that deserves exploring on many campuses — and that can be explored even at private institutions, thanks to a federal disclosure law, the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (“EADA”), that requires public reporting of athletic department revenues and spending, even at private institutions.

The myth of athletics as a profit machine is exploded in reporter Mackenzie O’Hara’s story, which explains how, over the past seven years, SMU athletics have run $113 million in the red — a sum equal to “almost half of all tuition and fees paid by students in the 2011 to 2012 school year.”

Access did not always come easily. As described in a sidebar story, since the last time The Daily Campus reported on the athletic department’s budget woes, previously unsecured financial records accessible on the Faculty Senate website were hidden behind a login.

(A bonus writing tip: When refused access to records in which the public has legitimate curiosity, always keep an ear cocked and a pen poised for the snarky denial — in this case, the hypocrisy of a professor with access to SMU’s athletics budget who crows about how highly the college is rated in “transparency” and then adds, “But, I’m not going to give you the figures.” Look at how matter-of-factly O’Hara lays it out, with no embellishment necessary. When an official is being a jerk, understatement and a well-transcribed quote are your friends.)

For more reinforcement on how profitable athletics are not, check out the exhaustive research done by a different Daily Campus newspaper — this one at the University of Connecticut.

Using public records, UConn reporter Mac Cerullo found that many participants even in the most prestigious college football bowls actually lose money on the bowl trips — including each of the last three national championship winners. Even though the most lucrative bowls offer payouts up to $18 million, that isn’t always enough to cover the massive expense of transporting a team and its entourage cross-country and meeting the bowls’ quota of ticket purchases.

And the impact can fall even on non-participants. Some schools, including the Atlantic Coast Conference’s perennial BCS bowl representative, Virginia Tech, have turned to their conferences for bailouts when bowl revenues run short, meaning that other conference schools are helping subsidize the trip.