Chapel Hill’s Tangled Web

(Editor’s note: This article originallly appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on June 12, 2012.)

UNC-Chapel Hill needs to be more transparent and stop operating behind closed doors. Last year, media organizations had to file suit against the university for denying the public access to the football program’s records during the NCAA investigations. Recently, as a student journalist, I experienced that same secretive obstinacy.

I was seeking to access budget data for university departments in order to find out the real effects of the 2011 budget cuts. For many months, administrators had insisted that the budget cuts would damage the “academic core” and thereby diminish the undergraduate experience. To see whether the cuts had actually affected the departments, I needed to see department budgets for different years.

Most of the news coverage, however, revolved around cuts to the university as a whole. Overall numbers are helpful for some things, but they don’t show the entire picture. So I tried to do a little investigating, starting in December 2011.

 As a senior, I could see some of the changes within my own department (Economics) unfolding over the last four years. I wanted to compare the Economics Department’s budget with other department budgets to understand the decision-making process that determined what was cut or kept.

Unfortunately, none of this information was online, so I contacted the associate vice chancellor for finance. He sent me the following response: Departmental budgets are maintained in the university’s financial system – FRS. Security access to the system is limited to university employees who need access to conduct official university business.

His response didn’t seem right – this is a public university, and it seems unreasonable that departmental budgets are kept secret from the public [budget figures for units above the department level, the College of Arts and Sciences, for example, are available]. I eventually met with him and the vice provost for finance and academic planning, but they said they could not provide me with the information I was seeking.

At their suggestion, I contacted the business manager of every academic department in the College of Arts and Sciences and a few of the other schools, 48 people in total. Only 15 responded, and only eight of them gave me the slightest bit of information.

One business manager responded, “No Anthony – .this is not possible,” without explanation. Another merely replied, “Sorry, I do not know you and cannot help you.”

A department chair was willing to give me a general overview but concluded: “You would need to contact the Dean’s office for copies of any budget reports that we submit to them.”

I then contacted the dean’s office only to be told by the director of communications that each department had the budget report, not the dean’s office.

I made a final attempt and submitted a public records request with the university counsel on March 1 for one department’s budget. My request remains unfulfilled three months later. Even my phone call recently to ascertain a tentative timeline for my request has gone unreturned.

I understand that with the budget cuts the university’s support staff members are being asked to do more with less, as this response indicated: “Unfortunately, it would take us substantial effort and time to properly collate and organize this information so as to provide it to you in any form that would be useful to you. As part of the budget cutbacks, we are operating with reduced department staff whose time for their department duties is already severely strained. As such, I cannot allocate our limited resources to putting together such a detailed report for you at this time.”

On the other hand, shouldn’t university departments already know their budgets? How can any such operation function without knowing how much it spends?

Furthermore, this information is a public record and should be made accessible. The counsel’s office never said it wasn’t public; instead, I was shuffled around the university system and given excuse after excuse, most likely with the goal to frustrate me so that I would give up.

And they were right. I did my best, but almost five months after I began, I feel as though I’ve exhausted all the means of obtaining that information and come up dry. This is not how a university that seeks to be responsive to the needs of students – and taxpayers – should operate.

(Editor’s note: Anthony finally received the information he was seeking a week after this article appeared in the News & Observer.)