Sunshine Week: Open government is essential

Grace Turner and Sam Schlenner

For the past nine months, we have been watchdogging Oakland University as part of an independent study course in investigative journalism. We have learned both the necessity and futility of sunshine laws, which, to a limited extent, declare the citizens have the right to know the operations of certain public institutions.

We have discovered that the Michigan Freedom of Information Act is an essential but imprecise tool. It has both served us and left us frustrated. Oakland University garnered some lukewarm press in February 2016 when it held its annual Winter College donor event in Bonita Springs, Florida.

While the retreat was a superfluous expenditure of $150,000 on the surface, our investigation, which was largely based on a FOIA request, concluded that the cost was worth it in good will and potential donations. However, we were only able to discover it because the FOIA “hit,” so to speak.

Pressing on, our effort to ascertain the reasons Oakland University President George W. Hynd is leaving his position after three years — prompting the hiring of a national search firm to help find the next chief administrator — further revealed the need for, and flaws of, sunshine laws.

When a man who leads one of Michigan’s 15 taxpayer-supported public universities departs without adequate explanation, and the board of trustees is not keen to elaborate, sunshine laws are one of the only ways to obtain verifiable information about the decision.

But the laws uncover useful information only if the FOIA requests, as in our Winter College story, hit paydirt.

We have filed six FOIA requests for written material that would cast light on Hynd’s departure — seeking information such as correspondence and emails between the board of trustees and the president, and performance reviews — and have been disappointed with the results. Mostly, we have received documents that do not say much of anything.

Using the FOIA is like playing Battleship, and this time it was a bad game, with very few hits. We have continued our reporting, interviewing faculty and university staff, attending every public appearance of the president and board that we knew of, asking questions, looking for leaks and listening to hints.

Through 11 interviews, we found a common theme: Nobody can say why Hynd is leaving. Our queries triggered general resistance. Some danced around the questions, while others just didn’t know.

People seemed less likely to speak candidly when representatives from university communication and marketing coordinated the interviews and tagged along; however, most of our interviews were set up without intermediaries.

The stated goal of the town-hall style meetings was to involve students, faculty and staff in the crafting of the job description of the next Oakland president.

In this case, the Michigan FOIA would be one of the only instruments we have to advocate for this essential information. But as we’ve found out, it is an imprecise tool and has not borne much fruit in this case.

Public money should mean public knowledge. Taxpayer-funded bodies, to the extent that security and legal privacy can be maintained, should make known their operations to the general population.

The role of the investigative journalist is to make a cold, clear, accurate evaluation of these institutions, which were built to serve you and your family; information about the operations of these institutions is crucial for such an appraisal.

And while questions from outside sources are understandably uncomfortable for government and publicly funded bodies, the mere act of inquiry does not assume wrongdoing.

Questions are beneficial and actually necessary for the long-term integrity of public institutions, and therefore the public itself. Sunshine laws are essential, we learned, but not always effective.

Grace Turner and Sam Schlenner are senior journalism students at Oakland University. They wrote this article on behalf of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.