Please take a more nuanced look at transparency at UT

J.B. Bird

Editor’s note: The following letter to the editor is in response to a story The Daily Texan published November 1, regarding the University’s public information practices. While not every detail of the reporting process was included in the story, the Texan stands by the piece as a whole.

Last week, The Daily Texan published an article that contained omissions and oversights in its description of the open records process at UT. The author, Morgan O’Hanlon, did not seek comment from the administration to address many of the issues she raised. We believe readers deserve a more complete picture.

Like other public institutions in Texas, UT is subject to state open records law. We believe the transparency resulting from this law makes us a better university by holding us accountable to the public. So far this year, UT has fielded more than 825 open records requests — quite likely more than any other public university in the state. Private universities are not subject to this law. Responding to this number of requests requires four full-time staff in the Open Records Office plus the time spent by people asked to provide their own records. 

As UT’s media relations director, I sometimes hear from reporters frustrated at the time and costs associated with open records requests. There are at least two main reasons that complying with open records law can be time-consuming and costly: privacy law and the complexity of the requests themselves. Privacy is an issue of great importance to students. Information that identifies students is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. The practical effect is that all requested records need to be carefully reviewed before being released so identifying information can be blocked from view or redacted. It’s an intensive process, but it’s essential for legal and ethical reasons.

Consider the case of a student who accuses a professor of misconduct. If there’s a finding against the professor, the results, including the professor’s name, are a matter of public record. But the name of the student remains confidential according to federal law. As a result, all documents need to be reviewed and redacted to maintain student confidentiality. 

Sometimes, privacy makes it almost impossible to legally release documents. This is a matter of state and federal laws, not the whim of UT. When there are questions about how to comply with the laws, decisions are made by the Texas Attorney General’s Office. There are also ethical issues at stake with privacy. Imagine the moral outrage UT students would express if the University began releasing the names and cell phone numbers of students who lodged complaints of misconduct. The original article pays no heed at all to the importance of these privacy concerns. I believe students feel differently. 

Complexity is another factor adding time and expense to open records requests. Most requests are fulfilled for free. This year, for example, 75 percent of the requests from The Daily Texan reporters have been fulfilled at no cost. When there is a cost estimate, it’s usually due to the complexity of reviewing and redacting large batches of documents. Some requests are so sweeping, they could cost thousands of dollars to fulfill. State law provides that requesters — not taxpayers or tuition-payers — can share some of that expense. We believe this is fair, and we treat all requesters equally. Even seemingly small requests are often more involved than people realize. O’Hanlon cites a case of 25 records from the UT Police Department that had a processing estimate of $283. Her article left out a key detail. Those 25 records consisted of 863 pages of documents. Collecting and redacting 863 pages of information would have required at least 15 hours of staff-time, which somebody has to pay for.

To help out O’Hanlon, staff in UT’s Open Records Office showed her how she could modify her request to get a relevant view of the documents (the first pages of the documents) at no cost. She took advantage of this free option, but then decided to leave this detail out of her article. Readers deserve to know about the help she received from the office she criticized.

Every year, UT fields hundreds of open records requests, most at no cost to the requester. As staff dedicated to excellence at UT, many of us see the benefits of this process of accountability. We take our charge seriously to work thoughtfully with people seeking records; to comply with all state and federal laws; and to adhere to ethical standards that will continue to make UT one of the most transparent institutions in the state. It’s regrettable these details were left out of the Texan article. 

Bird is the director of media relations and digital newsroom at UT.