Big Ten university leaders — including University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel — used a private network exempt from public record laws to communicate about fall COVID-19 outbreaks on campus and the 2020 football season, the Washington Post reported Friday.
Through public records requests, The Washington Post accessed emails between the chancellors and presidents of Big Ten universities. In these emails university officials asked to move their discussions to the Big Ten portal, a platform hidden from the public eye.
“Just FYI — I am working with Big Ten staff to move the conversation to secure Boardvantage web site we use for league materials. Will advise,” Schlissel wrote in an email to other Big Ten chancellors and presidents.
Though each individual Big Ten university is subject to Freedom of Information Act laws, the conference as a whole represents a private, third-party entity not required to share their records.
Despite a football season ridden with COVID-19 outbreaks and forced game cancellations, The Washington Post was unable to find evidence of significant discourse involving both coaches and administrators. There is no indication as to why Big Ten leaders reversed their original decision to cancel the season.
Instead, from an exchange of emails from August 2020, The Washington Post identified university leaders expressing their shared concern to not disclose any information to the public.
“Mark (Schlissel) and others — please note that anything that arrives in or is sent from my email can be requested as a public record. I know I’m not the only one for whom this is true,” University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote.
In a direct private email back to Blank, Schlissel responded by suggesting they delete their emails.
“becky, if you simply delete emails after sending, does that relieve you of FOIA obligations? I share your concern of course,” Schlissel wrote.
According to The Washington Post, there is not significant evidence that implies either Blank or Schlissel acted on this idea and deleted their communications. As Blank then informed Schlissel, the Freedom of Information Act prohibits public leaders from permanently deleting their messages.
The Washington Post requested the release of all emails, including those sent over the private platform, but was unsuccessful, as university representatives said they belong to the Big Ten Conference. Many Freedom of Information Act experts, including David Cuillier, associate professor at University of Arizona, and Chip Stewart, professor at Texas Christian University, said these communications between public leaders on a third-party server can still be accessed by the public under the Freedom of Information Act.
Additionally, senior staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Information Act expert Adam Marshall said to the Post he believed it was “troubling and wrong” for public leaders to try and evade public information laws in this way.
In an email to The Michigan Daily Friday afternoon, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote Schlissel uses several different means of communication with colleagues, and the conversations in question were not moved to the Big Ten portal.
“U-M President Mark Schlissel regularly communicates with the presidents of other Big Ten universities in a variety of ways on many topics,” Fitzgerald wrote. “President Schlisel notes that this was simply a conversation among colleagues trying to help each other by sharing information on how to navigate a novel, shared challenge – COVID-19 on campus.”
Daily Staff Reporter Lillian Gooding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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