Who’s Killing Higher-Ed Transparency in Virginia?

So much for transparency

by James A. Bacon

The previous post, “What Is UVA Hiding,” highlights the excessive use of the “working papers” exemption to prevent access to the UVA president’s documents, emails and texts under the Freedom of Information Act. I might have been unfair to UVA. The headline implies that UVA, or by extension its leadership, is guilty of overreach in the interpretation of state law.

It turns out that many other Virginia universities utilize the exemption. ProPublica and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO spotlight in The Chronicle of Higher Education how they were thwarted in efforts to obtain documents shedding light on Christopher Newport University’s encroachments on adjoining neighborhoods. 

“Virginia may have the broadest and most explicit exemption for college presidents’ papers in the country,” says the article. “While presidents have said that public scrutiny would hamper frank dialogue and ‘reflective’ decision making, the exemption renders their perspectives — and the colleges’ inner workings — less visible to the media and Virginia taxpayers. Legislative proposals to repeal or narrow it have failed in the face of opposition from the higher-education lobby.”

At UVA, FOIA attorneys are theoretically independent from the university administration. They report to the University Council, which reports to the Attorney General’s office. That is a common, though not universal, pattern in Virginia’s public higher-ed institutions. At the Virginia Military Institute, by contrast, the director of communications and marketing handles FOIA requests.

In our article, we compared how UVa’s FOIA team released the emails and text messages of Board of Visitors member Bert Ellis with how it blocked the Jefferson Council’s attempt to obtain emails between former Rector Whitt Clement and President Jim Ryan.

Jeff Thomas, the Richmond author who submitted the FOIA request for Ellis, informs us that the UVA lawyers were not cooperative with him either. The lawyers “did not release public documents to me but withheld them. They and then the AG’s office fought me every step of the way in and out of court. After I sued, pro se, and won, public documents were released pursuant to a court order by a judge who found that UVA FOIA attorneys violated FOIA law. The attorneys who broke the law received no sanction, so far as I am aware, which leads me to believe that it is their unofficial job description to violate FOIA. Judging by your article, they seem to be doing so regardless of whose records are FOIAed.”

It appears that the reluctance of UVA lawyers to cough up documents can be traced to policies set by the AG’s office, that those policies in turn are influenced by state law, and that state law is influenced by higher-ed lobbyists who don’t want greater transparency. Round and round we go.

Virginia’s FOIA law has more bullet holes than Sonny Corleone’s body. It may be impossible to bring greater transparency to higher ed at the level of the individual institution. It may require changing state law and taking on the higher-ed lobby in Richmond. That in turn may require boards of visitors across the state to direct their institutions’ lobbyists to advocate plugging some of the exemptions in state law.

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walter smith
walter smith
6 months ago

Even with the very broad FOIA law, UVA has stretched it beyond recognition.
Under UVA’s assertions, one could argue that since Jim Ryan is the ultimate decision maker, everything produced everywhere is for his “deliberative privilege.” Similarly, every single email could be said to be “correspondence.”
UVA has asserted that 2 “committees” – in existence for 3 years – are all presidential working papers. If that is the case, then the “committees” are fig leaves, and not truly committees of experts trying to devise a policy – they are a front to end up where Jim Ryan wants, while he pretends it is the work of the applicable committee.
What is particularly galling, however, is the hypocrisy. UVA claims its support for “free expression” and “free inquiry” is “unequivocal.” So, why has UVA gone to such efforts to hide the documents pertaining to the free speech committee? Third party submissions to the committee were claimed to be working papers. The agendas were claimed to be working papers, but UVA chose to release the agendas the day before the Henrico trial. Jim Ryan’s instructions to the Committee were claimed to be working papers. The committee’s first drafts of a free speech statement (I believe 2 to 4) were claimed to be working papers. Why did all of these NEED to be hidden? Is it ironic at all that these documents have been withheld? Finally, a party can choose to release documents even if they are “working papers.” What great privilege is being protected here? What happened to “unequivocal?”

And this same criticism applies to the community partnership and the Re-naming committees. UVA is spreading DEI poison throughout the Charlottesville area, but everything is “working papers?” What is there to hide? Same with the “re-naming” committee. Are they hiding the plans to smear Jefferson with current woke orthodoxy? Aren’t these things of interest to everybody in the Commonwealth?

Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan
6 months ago

On the good side, at least we know that the AG is a RINO.

Hunter L
Hunter L
6 months ago

Someone should run for state office on this issue given the magnitude of its significance on future generations and the nationwide relevance that should catch on as a campaign issue for any candidates nationwide with similar issues with their state funded university.

From Congress down to every state funded institution, all of these people need a major reminder that they, in fact, work for us… not the other way around.

The Bootstrap Kid
The Bootstrap Kid
6 months ago
Reply to  Hunter L

Those people believe that they are better, and smarter than you or me. Consequently, they believe that we are the serfs and they are our overlords.