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The Closed U - Chris Ison Speaks Out

Chris Ison is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He was the Daily editor-in-chief in 1982-83, and later was an investigative reporter and editor at the Star Tribune. He won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1990.

From the Daily:

We are hearing much about saving the University of Minnesota’s core mission these days, and we should.
A $4.5 billion state deficit seriously threatens that mission, and it should be front and center as University administrators fight to make their case at the state Legislature.

But while they’re at it, they might want to reread the mission themselves.
It’s a quick read, after all — about five paragraphs covering three core values: research and discovery, teaching and learning, outreach and public service.

It’s that outreach and public service mission — described with words such as “effective public engagement” and “sharing knowledge” — that could use some extra attention. Because what the University runs on, of course, is public money. And evidence is mounting that the University isn’t much interested in an open, public dialogue that must be part of the deal.

We’ve seen a few examples lately:

Key stakeholders of the University’s graduate programs were blindsided recently by the announcement that the Graduate School would be restructured.

Graduate studies directors and student leaders told the Daily they didn’t learn of the decision until much of the public did.

Members of a task force on ethics reform in the Medical School complained recently of being kept in the dark about key issues, including the fact that a co-chair of the task force himself had been reprimanded for a “serious” conflict of interest violation. That came to light only after the Star Tribune reported it. Later, some task force members had to learn from the Daily that a draft report based on many months of their own work had been weakened.

The administration has flogged the Daily over its reporting, of course, even while faculty and others have found that reporting essential. That only furthers the University’s reputation as an institution that, while espousing education and knowledge, is intent on choking the flow of information to the public — even while it asks the public for hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

What much of the public doesn’t know is the extent of the University’s effort to undermine public awareness. Last month, a message to University directors and others warned that the Daily was trying to report on the potential effects of proposed budget cuts. The audacity! University News Service Director Daniel Wolter urged those contacted by Daily reporters to call him before agreeing to talk. He expressed concern about problems “that will result from using this particular venue for that purpose,” and said he’d be “happy” to offer a no comment on their behalf.

A similar e-mail was distributed just more than a year ago, complaining of “numerous uncoordinated administration comments giving too much information” to the media. The message directed all who receive press inquiries to route them to the News Service to ensure “the University’s reputation is both protected and advanced through the news media.” In other words: Don’t talk so that we can spin.

Such messages aren’t meant to be seen by newspaper staffers, of course, but they do see them. Why? Because people at the University who believe in truth, freedom of expression and open public discourse send them.

As a journalism instructor, I’ve spent years helping Daily reporters navigate through requests for information and public records. The resistance can be formidable. Delays, rejections and obfuscation are commonplace.

It’s not just Daily reporters who have complained. Many will remember the controversial search for a University president in 2002. The Daily, the Star Tribune and other newspapers had to sue to get the names of the finalists for the position. After a District Court judge ruled that the University had violated the law, the University appealed to the state Court of Appeals. When it lost again, it appealed to the state Supreme Court, only to lose again.

The University stands out among other agencies in foot-dragging, according to Dan Browning, an editor at the Star Tribune who has taught journalism and worked with students on public record requests.

“The U of M is notoriously bad in responding to requests for information,” he said. “That's their reputation.”

To be sure, Daily reporters aren’t perfect, and at times file difficult requests. But they are as dedicated and courteous as my old colleagues at the Star Tribune. They share the same passion — to help us all understand issues important to this community. That’s why faculty, legislators, the professional media and others read the Daily routinely. It covers, better than anyone, what is arguably the state’s most precious public asset.

In an interview for this column, Wolter said that he works hard to get the Daily the information it wants as quickly as possible, despite large numbers of requests. (Disclosure: I have an in-law who works at the News Service. We don’t discuss these issues.) Wolter said he treats Daily journalists as professionals while helping educate them about access to information.

Sounds reasonable. But Wolter could use at least as much educating.

Professional journalists usually aren’t forced to communicate with public information offices only through e-mail, as Wolter generally demands of Daily reporters
.

It’s a system that inhibits good-faith communication and reasonably quick access. Most professional journalists aren’t pressured to go through one office to cover, on a daily basis, a community of more than 60,000 people — only to be chastised for being a burden on that office.

Wolter’s e-mail policy does give him plenty of chances to scold reporters for doing their jobs. Take the recent e-mail sent to a reporter after she politely explained her role as a journalist and said she hoped to forge “a more professional and collaborative” relationship with his office.

Wolter responded in part by criticizing her calls to other University offices, saying “there’s nothing in their job description about talking to the media.” He complained of how “most people who have been at the ‘U’ for more than a couple of years also have a story of how the Daily wasted their time in some way.”

It’s a petty claim that would be fodder for jokes in most newsrooms. But for Daily reporters, it’s another reminder of who wields the power.

Since this edition of the Daily is written by newspaper alumni, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t always this way.

Trish Van Pilsum, now an investigative reporter with Fox 9 News, remembers few problems when she covered the University administration for the Daily during the early 1980s.

“I would walk in and out of the president’s office,” she recalls. “I had easy access to anybody in the administration that I wanted to talk to. I had ready access to any information I wanted.”

Pam Louwagie, the editor-in-chief in 1994-95, said her reporters had little trouble with the News Service.

“We could call whoever we wanted,” said Louwagie, now a projects reporter at the Star Tribune.

Sarah McKenzie, the Daily’s managing editor in 2000-01, remembers few obstacles.

“It seemed like we could call any department head,” said McKenzie, now the editor of the Southwest Journal and Downtown Journal in Minneapolis. “If there was something controversial, I don’t remember them trying to manage that.”

The University survived then.

Circling the wagons won’t help it thrive today. Many of the state’s best minds gather here. Shutting down the information they and the public need to help find solutions is bad business. And it violates the spirit of the University’s mission.

If the leaders believe in that mission, it’s time to walk the talk.

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