The ‘Black Hole’ for Open Records at the University of Oklahoma
Published: January 3rd, 2020
The University of Oklahoma somehow became, in recent years, a “Black Hole” for journalists and citizens wanting to monitor how tax dollars are spent. This week, CapitolBeatOK designated OU’s less-than-desired status for non-transparency as the sixth most significant story about Oklahoma government in 2019 (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/more-of-capitolbeatok-s-top-stories-for-2019-a-black-hole-at-ou-james-lankford-s-performance-non-com).
If only CapitolBeatOK and/or The City Sentinel newspaper had coined the “Black Hole” term first, but we did not. It came from Freedom of Information (FOI) Oklahoma, an organization of journalists and others who support openness in government. The group’s particular focus of frustration was the Board of Regents for a wide range of matters, including events surrounding (and lack of information about) the departures of long-time President David Boren and his first successor, James L. Gallogly.
Over the past year, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) grew increasingly frustrated with the Open Records office at OU. It began with efforts to discover the reasoning behind a past administration’s treatment of sensitive issues of race (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/ocpa-is-still-waiting-for-ou-open-records), and remained unanswered two months ago (https://www.ocpathink.org/post/ous-open-records-office-a-black-hole). More recently OCPA has been concerned about the treatment of faculty members who dissent from liberal orthodoxy . For a year, the OR professionals at OU delayed responsiveness to OCPA’s queries.
As answer finally came they were incomplete. Reporter Mike Brake has chronicled the unfolding story —
CapitolBeatOK can relate to both FOI and OCPA.
The incompetence, delays and obfuscation of the open records office at the Sooner State’s leading (or co-leading) institution of higher education is without parallel in the four decades of experience the writers of this article have in journalism.
From September 17, 2018 (Constitution Day) to November 4, 2019 (Will Rogers Birthday), we waited for the Open Records office to answer a request for information about academics we thought might be using the University email system and state government time to engage in political activism.
Our review of 635 records over recent weeks documents activist professors utilizing state resources, particularly state email addresses, for non-state business. Documents were often signed by an OU professor, thus leveraging their university status and power to influence students, the community and the city of Norman.
Cynthia Rogers, Professor of Economics; Stephen Ellis, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Interim Director of Debate; and Cynthia Rosenthal, Professor of Political Science – All used state email accounts for personal political purposes.
They developed strategy on securing Norman city council votes in their favor and guided efforts to remove business leaders from volunteer community and public service roles, criticized a local non-profit for hosting a community information meeting, coordinated and organized forums with a political purpose, used academic status to criticize the OU Daily’s coverage (including planting negative stories about a non-profit group). They distributed selected studies to The Norman Transcript and other media, although they are not official university media representatives, contacted the local District Attorney Council to allege wrongdoing by others (including asserted criminality). They worked closely with students, in a way more reminiscent of running a campaign office than of education.
A lot of material, parts of it more interesting than others indisputably shows patterns of use, or misuse, of University (government) resources, taking sides in a political dispute over a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) mechanism and development of an area adjacent to the OU campus.
We will continue to examine the voluminous material acquired from our sincere efforts to exercise rights provided for freedom of information and provisions advancing open governance provisions. These are things often declared as essential at places like OU, even when not always honored in practice.
Note: McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and publisher/editor of The City Sentinel newspaper. Martin, an independent journalist, is former editor of The City Sentinel.