The news yesterday that two employees at the University of Oregon illegally “leaked” 22,000 pages of documents to a UO professor is stunning.
Not for the reasons the UO would have you believe. What is amazing about the whole affair is how the UO has managed to spin the story, making it seem as if legitimate confidentiality were being breached by hackers and moles within the ranks.
This is not a case of Edward Snowden and the NSA. The UO wants you to believe that, though.
Take, for example, the email sent out Tuesday by interim UO president Scott Coltrane. In its first paragraph, he claims that the records were “unlawfully” released, and goes on to say, “These records contain confidential information about faculty, staff and students, but our current understanding is that no social security numbers, financial information or medical records were shared.”
That’s kind of like saying that, “Our current understanding is that the two scurrilous leakers are not known to be drug addicts, wife beaters or members of ISIS or the Russian mafia.”
Bringing up social security numbers and financial and medical information strongly implies that this is the work of anarchistic hackers like Anonymous.
But look carefully at the few facts the UO has laid out. It appears from various news reports that a UO professor, who has not yet been named, may have made an official request for documents – as all citizens are entitled to do under state public records law.
Two UO employees then fulfilled that request.
What’s wrong with that?
Well, the employees apparently neglected to follow current UO policy, which is to ignore or violate public records law at every turn. In fact, the only thing I see that’s “unlawful” is the UO’s complete disdain for the rights of the Oregon public.
A story updated today in the Oregonian makes the situation seem more complicated. The prime suspect for the UO prof is economics faculty member William Harbaugh, a strident critic of the administration through his wonderfully aggressive blog, UOMatters. He emailed the Oregonian that the situation doesn’t result from a public records request, but involves information that came from the UO archives. Still, that doesn’t really change the situation. Under Oregon law, all documents are presumed to be public, unless they are specifically exempted. A strong case could be made that the two UO employees who released the information did so properly, because the information already belongs to the public.
The UO has a terrible record on transparency.
When I worked at the Register-Guard, for example, a simple public records request to the Oregon Bach Festival (see – there really is an arts connection to this story!) for emails about the hiring of a new artistic director resulted in an $800 bill to the newspaper. For what? For searching some emails?
(After weeks of negotiation, we paid up, and the emails were released – with almost everything blacked out.)
I have never in my 40-year career as a journalist seen such tight secrecy in a public agency that wasn’t actually engaged in something criminal. Is the UO hiding something? Who knows? How are we ever to find out?
And, yes, this is an important arts story. The university, with its Oregon Bach Festival and Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and its art department, constitutes the biggest arts institution in town.
It’s hilarious that the UO is demanding the “return” of electronic records that its employees released. What is the unnamed prof supposed to do: Send back a bucket of electrons?
Whether the unnamed prof is Harbaugh or not, the university has apparently given him — and, yes, according to an email reported in the Oregonian it’s a “him” — a deadline of today for “returning” the documents.
Yes, taxpayers haven’t supported the UO with as much money as they should. But the UO isn’t a private school just yet.
We the taxpayers still own the university, its buildings and its name. And we should be allowed to know what’s going on with our investment.