System moves toward transparency

Jordan Shenhar

With a new president in Gregory Fenves and a fairly new chancellor in William McRaven, UT’s leadership has gotten a chance to rebrand itself following years of acrimonious disputes between former President Bill Powers and the Board of Regents. By keeping its decision-making processes as transparent as possible, their terms have gotten off to a good start.

Fenves was especially open throughout the controversy over the Jefferson Davis statue. From the public forums to the committee’s recommendations to the final decision and the alternate choices under consideration, the general public was, at least in a broad sense, always aware of the University’s thinking on the issue.

The Board of Regents took a similar tack toward transparency when it revised UT’s policy on rare admissions this summer. After it was revealed that Powers overrode dozens of rejection letters issued to the relatives of influential donors, the regents passed a bylaw that requires a president to justify any overturned admission to the system chancellor. By yielding some of the University’s authority to a public trustee, the regents sought to prevent those in power from abusing their authority behind closed doors.

Some of these efforts to foster public engagement stem from Regent Wallace Hall’s lawsuit against the System, a rare positive development in a legal battle that, if successful, could have endangered student privacy rights.

But they also coincide with a broader phenomenon that history professor Jeremi Suri describes as the “democratization of information,” a byproduct of technological advancements that have made accessing records easier than ever before. Both in the U.S. and abroad, public figures known for secrecy and shrewdness have suffered damaging hits to their reputations, while upstarts perceived as honest and straight-talking have seen their profiles and polling numbers rise.

For instance, although Hillary Clinton remains the front-runner in the democratic primary, her popularity has plummeted in recent months in the wake of scandals surrounding the Clinton Foundation and her storage of classified emails on a private server. On the flip side, candidates with blunt messages — including both Washington veterans like Bernie Sanders and political outsiders like Ben Carson and Donald Trump — are seizing headlines and attracting enthusiastic grassroots support.

Across the Atlantic, former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras resigned when his government’s obligations to creditors prevented him from ending austerity as he promised. Similarly, radical leftist Jeremy Corbyn looks poised to become the leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party following a campaign in which he attacked his predecessors’ bloviating, politically mild rhetoric.

While Suri views this dissolution of the barrier between political figures and the citizens they represent as “generally good,” he warned that it can restrict a leader’s “deliberative space.”

“Access to information is important,” Suri said. “But the timing needs to allow for leaders to think through all of their ideas, even those that might not be politically viable.”

Suri’s point is particularly relevant to intelligence and defense, where revealing too much about a leader’s thought process can weaken national security. But in most cases, periodic insights into how that thought process is evolving keep the public informed about and engaged with decisions that could
profoundly impact their lives. Given the success, for better or worse, that figures like Sanders and Trump have found by keeping their public remarks raw and unsanitized, restricting access to unpopular proposals might be a weak tactic to begin with.

As participatory mass media sources have replaced smoke-filled lounges as the sounding boards for new ideas, politicians no longer benefit from keeping their views or actions hidden. The University’s leaders — and Hall — deserve credit for recognizing that lesson.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics junior from Westport, Connecticut.