UNC president pledges to be open, candid

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2011

By Hugh Fisher and Elizabeth Cook
As head of a university system with 50,000 employees and 220,000 students, Tom Ross says he can be sure about one thing every morning when he wakes up.
Somebody screwed up somewhere.
Now, does the administration know about it?And does the press know about it?
President of the University of North Carolina system for 10 weeks now, Ross spoke Thursday at the statewide Sunshine Day Conference, held at the Salisbury Station.
The event, organized by the N.C. Open Government Coalition, focuses attention on efforts to promote transparency in government.
About 80 people took part, including members of the media, government officials and concerned citizens.
Ross said he has always approached his interactions with the media in a balanced way.
“I will be as open and candid as I can,” he said. “It’s easier for me just to tell you what I know.”
But he cited some constraints, including the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Passed in 1974, the law says an institution can lose its federal funding if it shows a pattern of making improper disclosures of student information.
Ross said the UNC system receives hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds each year. “That’s not a choice we can make.”
UNC-Chapel Hill is using student privacy as a defense in a lawsuit filed to gain access to records regarding its football program and an investigation by the NCAA.
“Those questions about FERPA will, I’m sure, ultimately be resolved in the courtroom,” Ross said.
“Whatever the outcome of the case is, the University of North Carolina will comply with the law.”
Ross, a former judge and president of Davidson College, said that, during his judicial career, he opposed closing courtroom testimony to the public.
But he also said he was glad for privacy when contacted by the search committee for the university system. He would not have taken part in the search if Davidson College would have found out.
The other constraint on access he cited is lack of resources. The university system has seen a 40 percent reduction in its general administrative staff since five years ago, forcing it to do more with less.
Meanwhile, Ross said, requests for public information have exploded in number and complexity. An e-mail search, for example, is “incredibly time consuming,” he said.
When you ask legislators to change laws regarding openness, he told the group, keep that in mind.
“You know this costs money. It’s not free. … Let policy makers know we need resources.”
He said he would work as hard as he could to fulfill public records requests, but his top priority was UNC’s core mission, education.
A question-and-answer period and a later panel discussion showed not everyone agreed with Ross regarding FERPA’s scope or openness as a part of the university’s core mission.
Amanda Martin, counsel for the N.C. Press Association, said many universities have interpreted FERPA in a paranoid belief that money will be whisked away, when the risk of that happening was fairly low.
Tonia Black Gold, communications officer for Catawba College, said the college compiles and shares directory information on students, which they can opt out of but seldom do.
Sara Gregory, community manager for The Daily Tar Heel in Chapel Hill, described barriers journalists have run into trying to find out more about student athletes. Her favorite response came, she said, when she asked an official how a list of tutors hired by the athletic department could be considered a student record. “You’ll have to ask FERPA about that,” she said the person replied.
The Sunshine Day Conference also featured panel discussions on accessing records and understanding changes to the state personnel law. It drew several local participants.
Chief Mark Cook of the Granite Quarry-Faith Police Department said he came to learn what the personnel laws mean for his department.
“There have been a lot of changes in the public records law. I’m trying to see what some of the changes are,” Cook said.
Salisbury City Clerk Myra Heard said she was interested to learn how new personnel laws might affect her office’s day-to-day operations.
“We want to be responsive, get the information as quickly as we can and be knowledgeable about the subject,” Heard said.
Under the new law, which took effect last October, governments must provide information on their employees’ salary increases or decreases, as well as dates of promotion, demotion, suspension, or other changes in status.
This information is available to all who make a proper request for records, not just reporters.
The conference is a part of Sunshine Week, a national effort to focus attention on debates over these issues.
Joe Morris, Salisbury’s planning director, said privacy questions arise in his department, too.
“From time to time, we have members of the development community who ask for confidentiality for their potential developments,” Morris said.
Salisbury Post education reporter Sarah Campbell was one of several staff members from the paper in attendance.
“The event provided an opportunity to gain some insight into what kind of information is public record and the best practices to seek that information,” Campbell said.
“Public records are an important accountability tool, so it’s important to know how to utilize them,” she said.
Ross said he was glad to see so many people interested in these ongoing discussions.
And, he said, it was encouraging that local leaders were getting involved in the debate.
“I hope you are here today to learn how to win more small victories,” Ross said.
“The reward is a more informed electorate, a more involved public.”
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.