Column: FOIA filed to keep people accountable, provide information

Cassie Buchman, News Editor

Concerns over transparency in the ongoing vitalization project have been detailed in many an article in The Daily Eastern News.

As a student journalist, it is my job to look into these concerns and fight for the freedom of information and openness in public bodies.

This is why I made the potentially unpopular decision to file an aptly named Freedom of Information Act Request for the emails to and from members of the vitalization project workgroups.

Since a FOIA request can only be so broad, I was told to narrow my original request to the emails from one specific workgroup: No.7, the one on academic programs.

The point of filing the FOIA request was not to target this group or any person in it. Members of The Daily Eastern News are not out looking for personal information or to get anybody in trouble.

We are not headline-hungry journalists, looking for whatever juicy details these emails will uncover. That is not our purpose.

The only information we are interested in is anything that will affect the members of the campus community in substantial ways so we can let people know what is happening. So we can answer the questions people need to know and keep people accountable for the decisions they make.

As has been acknowledged by everyone on campus, the recommendations the Workgroups make have the potential to make changes to the university that could affect peoples’ lives, jobs and different aspects of the university they know and love. Eastern President David Glassman has said he will consider them when making decisions for the future of the university. And no matter how many of the recommendations the administration uses, they still say a lot about the direction people feel this university needs to go in to make it stronger.

When the vitalization project was first announced, people were hopeful from what I saw. They were also concerned, and for good reason. There has been tension on this university’s campus ever since the fallout from the budget crisis. So many negative changes came to Eastern in such a short amount of time, and many departments both academic and nonacademic were left reeling from the loss of valuable staff members.

The university has lost so much. We are all protective of what remains.

So naturally, when it was announced that more changes were being planned as a part of this vitalization project, many people had questions about what it would mean for their department or area. Many of these recommendations will be done on a large scale, potentially changing how the university looks or operates. While there has been talk of getting areas more funding and how to fix programs to boost enrollment, groups are also charged to recommend how programs and services could consolidated, outsourced or even eliminated.

People are wondering, “What will my department look like when the vitalization project is over?” They are wondering if they will still have a job and if they do, if it will look the same as it did before. Not knowing this information creates the same tense and anxious atmosphere the university had during the budget crisis, where people were waiting for the other shoe to drop, to get the announcement that a huge aspect of their lives would change.

As journalists, it is our job to answer questions for a public that is waiting anxiously for answers. But this can only be done if discussions of these recommendations are as transparent as possible. Having open workgroup meetings allowed this, as it helps people see and understand what the workgroups are suggesting. If there are discrepancies between what the workgroup recommends and what a department or area sees in them, they should be known and noted as soon as possible. People need to have their say now.

If the broader campus community is able to see and hear what the workgroups are doing, it gives people less of a chance to feel sidelined or like they are being targeted when changes take place.

Unfortunately, it came to the News’ attention that some groups were circumventing these open meetings by doing their work via email or other methods that allowed them to avoid discussing actual operations and anything substantial in their meetings.

This is why I chose to FOIA for these documents and emails. To make sure transparency was being upheld in all the hard work these groups are doing.

And it is hard work. When going to workgroup meetings I saw the sacrifices many of the members have had to make when balancing the vitalization project with their own busy careers and personal lives. There is also that stress of knowing that by making these recommendations, there will be people who are angry, and that is a scary feeling. But at the end of the day, these decisions need to be made. Some sort of change needs to happen to keep the school afloat and taking out anger or anxiety on the people in the workgroups is not going to make this need go away.

But at the same time, people need to be held accountable when these recommendations are made. It is not fun to feel scrutinized or held under a microscope. I understand that. However, members of the vitalization project became public officials when they started discussing issues that could affect the public of Eastern. A public who deserve to know what is happening at the university they love.

This accountability does not just end with the workgroup members or administration. Everyone at The Daily Eastern News strives to be as transparent as well, so if you have any questions about our editorial or reporting process, just ask. Any member of our staff would be more than happy to answer or find someone who can answer these questions. And if you do not like something we wrote, let us know. That is why we print our emails at the end of our stories. We want to be held as accountable as we are asking you to be.

Everyone at Eastern wants the university to be the best it can be. But this cannot happen when people are being secretive or when people do not know what is happening on their own campus.

We need answers. We need transparency. But we also need to find the compassion for each other we all had before. I believe if through this vitalization project process we can be as open with each other as possible, Eastern will be better off.

 

Cassie Buchman is a junior journalism major. She can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]