TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: It's 10 o'clock -- do you know where your college president is? You would, if you had his calendar.



Ever wish you had one of those electronic manatee tracking collars to keep tabs on where government officials are going -- the ones who are always "out of the office" or "in meetings" and unavailable for interviews?

Well, until they start microchipping college presidents (note: that would be great), journalists will have to settle for the next best thing: Appointment calendars.

Last week, a Pennsylvania court decided that reporters for the Associated Press are entitled under that state's open-records act to complete copies of Gov. Tom Corbett's schedule.

The governor's office had released partial copies, with 28 "private" meetings blacked out. But the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that the public is entitled, under Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law, to the calendars in their entirety.

Lawyers for the governor tried to use a squishy loophole in state open-records law that allows agencies to withhold documents that might compromise the "deliberative process." The court, however, found that a mere calendar entry did not give away anything confidential about internal deliberations.

That is an important ruling not just for access to calendars, but access to all sorts of documents that agencies routinely try to conceal. It might be legitimate to withhold a preliminary draft of an unfinished document that contains the author's notes -- that is a "deliberative process" document. But Pennsylvania law, like all state open-records laws, presumes that the public should have the maximum possible access and that any exceptions to access should be narrowly interpreted. That is, appropriately, what the Commonwealth Court did April 23 in Office of the Governor v. Scolforo.

What works for the governor of a state should work equally for the chief executives of public colleges and universities as well. Journalists covering public colleges should have ready access to the president's schedule, and should take advantage of that inside glimpse behind otherwise-closed doors.

For years, the independent student newspaper at the University of Georgia, The Red & Black, has published a cheekily titled feature -- "Where's Mikey?" -- that reproduces President Michael Adams' appointment calendar.

Having a copy of a college president's appointment calendar can be journalistically useful for all sorts of reasons.

  • Seeing the meetings on the president's calendar tells you (a) who has the president's ear and (b) what types of issues the president is working on. If the athletic director is coming to his office three times a month, then something's up in the athletic department. (And if the athletic director is never coming to the president's office, then maybe there's nobody watching the store.)
  • Presidents serve in many external capacities that at times can compete for their attention. For instance, many of them serve on the boards of corporations, at times receiving enormous "honorarium" checks that raise questions about their independence and about whether the university has their full attention. If the president is spending five days a month at corporate board meetings, it's legitimate to ask whether the college is being run by a part-timer.
  • At times of trouble on campus -- crime, scandal, financial disaster -- it's comforting to know that the president is in the office managing the crisis, not attending a conference in Aspen at the height of ski season. (Journalists recently used travel records -- like appointment calendars, a matter of public record at a state university -- to document that the president of the University of Hawaii has spent nearly one year of her four-year tenure traveling away from the office.)
And there is one additional benefit that can't be ignored. A remarkable number of college officials have turned camera-shy, hiding behind public-relations spokespeople and refusing to grant interviews even to their own student media. If the college president is being purposefully evasive, journalists should be unashamed to show up at the president's next public appearance and confront him -- politely, and with video rolling -- with the questions he refuses to sit down and answer.

(Bonus story idea: Get the most recent 12 months' worth of presidential appointment calendars. Count up how many times you can tell that the president held a sit-down meeting with actual students. Write about what you find.)

 

Tagged: appointment calendar, Associated Press, Governor Tom Corbett, open record, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, public record, public records, transparency, Transparency Tuesday