From the Daily: More transparency, please

Thursday, October 12, 2017 - 9:41am

After the 2016 election, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel received criticism from conservative students and faculty who believed his politicized comments at a Diag vigil marginalized conservative viewpoints since public officials are expected to remain neutral. That November, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — a nonprofit research-based think tank — filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails from Schlissel containing the word “Trump.”

This month, the University settled a lawsuit from the Mackinac Center claiming the information the center had requested in November was not released in a timely matter. As a result of the lawsuit, the University released seven additional emails (11 in total) regarding the election. The University’s failure to follow basic transparency protocol inflated the importance of the released emails. The Michigan Daily Editorial Board implores the University to hold itself accountable to its own transparency in its actions and decisions.

The emails in question contained little information the public did not already know, or at the very least, assume. As someone who has publicly criticized President Donald Trump and his policies, it was no surprise that Schlissel’s emails revealed his worries about a Trump presidency. His small, albeit partisan, worries displayed a normal human reaction to what we believe to be a concerning presidency. The closest he even gets in his emails to “discriminating” against conservative students on campus is to point out the irony of Trump supporters feeling “marginalized and ostracized in our campus,” when Trump’s policies marginalize countless groups in society. Otherwise, Schlissel remains relatively moderate when expressing his feelings toward the administration and its supporters, even in private discourse.

Given the uncontroversial nature of President Schlissel’s emails, we believe the University’s slow response time to the Mackinac Center’s FOIA request caused the controversy. The center only proceeded to sue the University because it took 46 work days to procure the first four emails, a task that was estimated to take 2 hours and 45 minutes. The University claimed the delay was due to the high volume of FOIA requests filed in January, when the Mackinac Center made their request. The Mackinac Center therefore capitalized on the University’s slow response, creating controversy over something entirely noncontroversial. Had the University acted in a timely manner in completing the FOIA request, it is quite possible the findings would have flown under the radar.

Moreover, dragging out the release of the emails allowed the Mackinac Center to bring more attention to the real problem of transparency at the University. But, given the mildness of Schlissel’s emails, it makes little sense why the University chose to wait for a lawsuit before releasing the last seven emails. As part of the settlement, the University has agreed to review and change its FOIA policy, including moving away from charging fees for 75 percent of responses, hiring two new personnel to manage FOIA requests and publishing annual FOIA response performance reports. Since FOIA requests often carry lofty price tags or an unreadable volume of information, these are tangible steps the University can take to increase their transparency, and we hope they follow through on these plans.

Increased transparency will ultimately only help the University in the long run, as it will allow them to avoid extraneous “scandals” and lawsuits like this one. We implore the University to hold itself accountable to its own transparency from here on out.