Colleges’ stubborn refusal to comply with — or at times, even acknowledge — state laws requiring disclosure of open records doesn’t just impede journalists. It exacts a real toll on researchers’ ability to analyze how public universities are doing the public’s business.
As Peter Schmidt reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), lawyers questioning the legality of racial preferences in college admissions are expressing frustration at colleges’ growing resistance to requests for public records, even for documents about policies and practices that have no bearing on the confidentiality of individual students’ records.
Summing up the researchers’ exasperation, Schmidt quotes a brief by UCLA law professor Richard H. Sander, filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which is scheduled for argument before the Court Dec. 5: “Our research indicates that universities are becoming steadily less transparent in making admissions data publicly available.”
The SPLC has ample first-hand experience with colleges simply feigning ignorance of, or immunity from, open-records laws. When the SPLC surveyed 110 colleges nationwide seeking information about the outcomes of disciplinary hearings in sexual-assault cases — documents that are expressly made available to the public under federal law — more than 75 percent of institutions produced nothing.
Colleges’ insistence on withholding information about law-school admissions practices is especially difficult to defend because the exact issue has already been litigated before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
In 2002, the Wisconsin court ruled that records reflecting admissions patterns at the University of Wisconsin, minus identifiable personal information about individual applicants, are public records and cannot be withheld on the grounds of student confidentiality.
In the Fisher case, which challenges whether colleges may consider race as part of a subjective assessment of applicants’ personal qualities and experiences, state institutions shouldn’t be allowed to argue before the Court that they have considered alternative admission strategies if they’re unwilling to produce documentation when presented with a valid public-records request.