The University of Michigan has settled a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit involving the release of emails by President Mark Schlissel mentioning President Donald Trump -- resulting in changes in the university’s open records policy.
The settlement was reached Wednesday with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market-oriented think tank based in Midland.
The Mackinac Center said it asked in November for what turned out to be 11 Schlissel-written emails because it said the university president made comments against the Republican candidate and president-elect and the people who voted for him. A public body is supposed to issue a letter of denial within five business days or 15 days if it needs an extension, according to state law.
The UM is traditionally considered a liberal university.
The economically conservative center waited 100 days for UM to fulfill the request and sued the university when it didn’t respond. The Ann Arbor university released four emails on the same day that the Mackinac Center filed the lawsuit, center officials said.
Among the seven newly released emails is one from Aug. 24, 2016, in which Schlissel says he was preparing a speech to freshmen who would be “first time voters and thus special.”
“I realize that some may interpret this as anti-Trump although there is nothing explicit in the remarks,” he wrote in the August email. “...I would feel awful if Trump won the election and I was too afraid of appearing political to make any effort to encourage our students to thoughtfully participate. I’m willing to accept the criticism since I think its very important.”
In a Nov. 10, 2016 email to former UM President Mary Sue Coleman, Schlissel said he was trying to reassure students in the wake of Trump’s surprising election.
“I am torn on recommendations for appointees since I can’t imagine lending one’s name to a Trump administration,” he wrote.
One of Trump’s subsequent nominees is UM Regent Andrea Fischer Newman, a Republican activist and former Delta Air Lines lobbyist who has been nominated to serve on a federal labor board.
As part of the settlement, UM agreed to revise its official Freedom of Information policy.
“I am hoping they (UM officials) are more responsive and quick because FOIA is meant for people to engage in the political process and in order to do that, they need timely information,” said Patrick Wright, the center’s vice president of legal affairs.
Hundreds of FOIA requests are filed annually with the university, and the numbers grow every year. In 2013, 511 open records requests were filed. In 2016, the number of requests jumped to 647, said UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.
The original request was filed by Mackinac Center reporter Derek Draplin on Nov. 16, asking for emails by Schlissel that contained the word “Trump” between July 1-Nov. 16, 2016. According to a joint statement, the university estimated the time it would take to fulfill the request would be a little under three hours.
The university denied any wrongdoing, according to a joint statement. It indicated that in January 2017, while it was processing the center’s request, it had received more open records requests in one month than it had in its history.
“The response period also included personnel absences in the University’s FOIA office due to illness, the University’s December break, and nine business days between the final invoice and payment by the Mackinac Center,” the joint statement said. “Regardless, this matter has highlighted opportunities for improving the University’s FOIA process.”
The settlement agreement includes the following:
■ The university will provide initial responses to FOIA requests within the statutory five to 15 day windows, and will work to respond fully to at least 75 percent of all open record requests. It is not clear what the response time has been with other requests.
■UM will maintain four employees in its FOIA compliance office. A third staff member was recently hired as the university continues to look for ways to add a fourth, Fitzgerald said.
■ The university will prepare an annual report that will outline the number of requests, fees associated with requests and average response times.
■UM will create an internal tracking system that can easily identify outstanding FOIA requests.