Inquiring Minds Ought to Know

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article was published  in the Raleigh News & Observer on November 5.

The recent lawsuit filed by The News & Observer and others to gain access to records involving football players and coaches at UNC-Chapel Hill did not surprise us at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. We have tried in vain for eight months to get information about articles published by Chapel Hill English professors. We were rebuffed in a way that reflects a similar disdain for transparency.

In February, the Pope Center was approached by a well-known author and English professor who wished to conduct research on UNC’s English department. Underlying his hypothesis was an observation that many faculty members (at all universities) conduct insignificant research that has little effect and therefore waste taxpayer money. (At UNC-Chapel Hill, tenured professors generally spend one-third of their time conducting original research or writing.) Because finding ways to reduce higher education costs is one of our primary objectives, we agreed to help him.

The professor wanted to examine tenure-track professors’ productivity and influence and therefore sought all of their published works over a four- or five-year period. Two sources contain sufficient information about faculty output: professors’ curriculum vitae (CV), the academic equivalent of resumes, and Faculty Activity Reports (FAR), which tenured professors in the UNC system must file to prove they have fulfilled the terms of their contracts. The professor preferred to use the FARs, so I requested them from university counsel Leslie Strohm in February.

I did not seek the entire FARs, in case they contained information that should remain private. I merely sought redacted lists of professors’ publications, which the public is legally entitled to in North Carolina according to statute § 132-6(c):

“No request to inspect, examine, or obtain copies of public records shall be denied on the grounds that confidential information is commingled with the requested nonconfidential information. If it is necessary to separate confidential from nonconfidential information in order to permit the inspection, examination, or copying of the public records, the public agency shall bear the cost of such separation.”

On March 24, Regina Stabile of the counsel’s office informed me that the FARs were entirely confidential personnel records. She based her decision on North Carolina statutes § 126-23, and § 126-24, which state that only ten items of personnel information – including hire date and salary – are public, and everything else is protected.

In March, Beverly Taylor, the English department chair, told me that the information in the FARs would be available in April on the English department’s website.  Roughly half were available by the time she said they would be.

Over the summer, the professor hoping to conduct the research contacted Dr. Taylor, and asked for her help in obtaining the missing CVs. She said she would do so when she returned from travelling. In August, he had not yet heard from Dr. Taylor, so he again asked for her help. She informed him that the school’s legal department had determined that the CVs were confidential as well. Presumably, this means that the information contained within them, including published articles, is confidential as well. The school simply refused to redact either document to provide a list of professors’ publications.

I was bewildered. Isn’t the purpose of publishing things to make them public? How could professors’ published works at a public university be considered confidential?

As a final recourse, I wrote to Chancellor Holden Thorp on Sept. 28, asking whether he indeed stood by the legal department’s determination. He has not responded.

What is it they don’t want us to know? We did manage to learn that, while some English department professors produce much well-respected research, others do virtually no research and others’ research is almost completely ignored. Still others do research that is substandard, bizarre or irrelevant.

As the Mary Easley scandal at N.C. State and the football scandal at Chapel Hill have shown, universities do not always take the high road. They need oversight, not by politicians with vested interests in presenting a superficially pristine image, but by the public. To start, all public records and e-mails necessary should be revealed to learn the full extent of the Chapel Hill football mess.

But we shouldn’t stop there. Complete transparency is the way to keep the university system in line. During its upcoming session, the General Assembly should rewrite the public records laws to eliminate conflicts or loopholes and provide real transparency. All faculty CVs and course syllabi should be made available online for anybody to see. Perhaps this transparency should even be extended to university financial records.

As long as UNC schools can hide behind a wall of ambiguity and obstinacy, scandals will continue and academic quality will suffer. Let’s get everything out in the open.