In September 2014, the Daily requested documents from the University surrounding the Department of Education’s Title IX investigation, falling under the purview of Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. These documents include, “written complaints, e-mails from administrators and witness statements, among other documents.” After negotiations and communication spanning over four months, the Daily paid one of two $445 installments for a fraction of the originally requested documents. Two months later, the University has not only failed to provide the documents, but also has not released a timeline estimating when it might provide them. This is not acceptable. Although the University is not legally required to release any sort of timeline, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said in an interview with the Daily that this process “really should not take months.” While not illegal, it is unethical and dubious of the University to decline releasing a timeline in addition to the documents themselves.
Unfortunately, this failure of the University to make records available to the public is consistent with past behavior. In 2011, the Daily published a special report showing that the University charges hefty fees for open records requests, which sometimes can be well over $1,000 — far more expensive than fees charged by other Big Ten schools.
Not only does the University make the attainment of documents under the purview of FOIA difficult by hiking up the fees for document requests, but it also lacks an official policy for preserving public records. The legality and morality of this is questionable, if not doubtful. This problem emerged earlier this academic year, when the Daily submitted FOIA requests for e-mails to and from former Athletic Director Dave Brandon immediately following former football kicker Brendan Gibbons’ permanent separation from the University for violating the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy. In this case, the University could not fulfill the request because the e-mails — which are public record — had been deleted due to the lack of a records retention policy.
These problems find their origins in both systemic practices within the University and in the details of the state’s FOIA requirements. The Michigan Freedom of Information Act requires the public body to respond to requests for documents within five business days, but this response can simply state that more time is needed before the documents can be released. It does not, however, require the public body to specify exactly how much time is needed.
In addition, the bill states that public bodies may charge requesters fees “for the necessary copying of a public record for inspection or providing a copy of a public record,” and that they may charge additional fees if not doing so would result in “unreasonably high costs” for the public body. These terms are vague and ultimately give public bodies the discretion to determine the cost of obtaining the requested documents. This ambiguous legislation could have led to the unreasonably high costs demanded of the Daily.
Fortunately, earlier this year the Michigan legislature passed changes to the bill, effective July 1, that will amend these problems. Such changes require public bodies to release a timeline, albeit non-binding, for the documents’ release, and also cap fees at 10 cents per page prepared for release.
Although these changes are commendable, the problem still remains: the University is not being transparent about its practices and procedures. Even though their practices are not currently illegal, withholding information from the public and from students is morally concerning, regardless of whether it be because the records are poorly organized or the records reveal incriminating information.
In light of all of these events, it is absolutely imperative — for ethical reasons and for the sake of re-earning students’ trust — for the University to provide the documents, or at least a timeline for the release of the documents that were requested two months ago, with or without legislation mandating the University do so.