Public information held hostage

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So all I have to do to strong-arm the folks at the University of Iowa, one of the state’s largest employers, with attorneys on retainer — home to an entire law school, for crying out loud — is threaten to take them to court? That doesn’t seem right.

But it seems to be the lesson to take from the cover-up of survey comments critical of former College of Education Dean Margaret Crocco — just one recent example of the public university’s tight grip on information of significant public interest.

Late last year, UI President Sally Mason told reporters that her tight-lipped stance on public information stemmed from her reluctance to get involved in legal questions of student and staff privacy. She acknowledged persistent criticisms about the school’s lack of transparency under her leadership, especially when it came to providing details about high-profile controversies that raise big questions about the way the UI does business, but said her stance won’t change so long as the school’s lawyers tell her she’s better safe than sorry when it comes to breech of privacy.

“I am absolutely committed to not putting the institution at risk for litigation if I can help it,” she told reporters. “I do not think that’s productive, nor do I want to spend money on litigation.”

A position that must not have been lost on Crocco, or untold other UI employees who might wave the threat of lawsuits in order to keep potentially embarrassing details private, even when the public has a valid interest.

Last fall, Crocco racked up 44 votes of no confidence and only 16 votes of support out of 91 ballots distributed among faculty. But emails released by the UI in response to open records requests last week show that Crocco threatened to “involve an outside attorney” if UI Provost Barry Butler didn’t suppress critical comments included in a separate workplace survey.

The very next day, emails show, Butler contacted the survey leaders to make sure they gave him all the records of those comments to be placed in Crocco’s confidential personnel file.

They complied, of course. What choice did they have? Then every member of the College of Education’s faculty advisory committee and staff council resigned in protest. A few days later, Crocco turned in her own resignation.

A lawsuit averted, but was it worth it?

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