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Regents Transparency Task Force to meet today for the first time

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | APRIL 05, 2013 5:00 AM

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Following criticism over the past few years for officials ranging from the university level to as high as Gov. Terry Branstad, a new state Board of Regents group assigned to improve transparency will meet for the first time today.

“The record has been very mixed [on public-records requests], and I am assuming that is why the task force was created,” said Kathleen Richardson, a task force member and executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

The nine-member Transparency Task Force comprises representatives from Iowa’s three regent universities, two representatives from the state Legislature, and other officials. According to goals set by the regents, the group aims to improve responses to public-information requests and access to the information.

John McCarroll, the executive director of Iowa State’s Office of University Relations, will be among the presenters at today’s meeting. He said his presentation will highlight the many websites the university has along with university relations and various colleges’ communications departments, which are two proactive steps Iowa State takes.

“I think we all care about transparency because many of us are involved in it every day,” McCarroll said. “We’re both responding to news media calls, and … we are pumping out news announcements and releases virtually every day.”

Richardson said there’s “some concern” over the University of Iowa’s recent role in public-records disputes, including the controversial resignation of Peter Gray, former associate director of Athletics Student Services. The UI spokesman welcomes the task force but believes the university is adequately handling public information requests.

“Any guidance from the task force on being as transparent as possible, and protecting the confidentiality of students will be welcomed,” UI spokesman Tom Moore said. “… We have to have the balance to being open and committed to transparency while at the same time we do have a lawful duty to confidentiality of records.”

Frank LoMonte, an expert on public-records law, said while other universities have similar practices, the UI has a history of disclosing the least information possible.

“We don’t have a scientific survey, but the University of Iowa tends to start with the mentality how of how little can we produce, not how much can we produce,” said LoMonte, executive director of the student press law center. “Certainly, their handling of the [2007 Hillcrest] sexual-assault case shows a mentality of interpreting the law in the narrowest possible way in permitting the least disclosure the law requires.”

Moore responded by saying the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in the incident surrounding two Hawkeye football players at the Hillcrest Residence Hall reaffirms the UI’s handling of public records. The 4-3 decision ruled the UI was not obligated to turn over student records to the Iowa City Press-Citizen related to the 2007 sexual-assault investigation.

“Essentially, in our view [the Iowa Supreme Court] confirmed that we were taking the right steps in terms of protecting the privacy of our students,” Moore said.

One local legislator said he believes singling out the UI is unfair, because he believes other regent universities have encountered similar critiques.

“I think we are making leaps forward in sharing information,” said Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville. “I haven’t really seen anything different from Iowa State or UNI … and in terms of standard operating procedures, there’s a line we have to draw for protecting students’ privacy rights.”

LoMonte said while some improvements can be made at the state level, he believes the biggest improvement that can be made is rewriting the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which requires universities to protect certain educational records.

“We need a clear statute that tells [university officials] what is and is not confidential, which can save you years of litigation,” he said. “ There’s no clarity today, and that’s why wasteful and unproductive cases are going through court.”


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