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Still on his Feet: UO redactions disgrace state

Jun 3, 2014


By Robert Husseman
Of the News-Register



Dear Sen. Brian Boquist, Rep. Jim Thompson, and Rep. Jim Weidner:

Hi. I live in Yamhill County now, and documents indicate that you are the state legislators elected by people in this area. Thanks in advance for reading this.

There is an item that I’m sure has constantly been brought to your divided attention: Three University of Oregon men’s basketball players were questioned by police after a young woman accused them of graphic sexual assault. These young men were allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament for men’s basketball after this incident occurred – and, apparently, despite the knowledge or intentional ignorance of their superiors: Ducks head coach Dana Altman, Athletic Director Rob Mullens, President Michael Gottfredson, and untold others.

Reporters like myself had questions: What went into the decision-making process? Who knew what, when? Why was the public not informed until a police report was released publicly, detailing the allegations? Did the university willingly allow three basketball players to skirt discipline so that Oregon could win basketball games in front of a large television audience?

No, said the administrators. “These assumptions are patently false,” Gottfredson told UO faculty and staff members on May 14, “and such speculations are very, very inappropriate.”

Prove it, replied the journalists, filing public records requests to the university en masse in the three weeks since the imbroglio surfaced in the public conscience.

UO administrators responded by tapping into their inner Mark Rothko, releasing 35 documents for public consumption – 34 of which were entirely redacted in either dark blue, green or marigold. UO public records officer Lisa Thornton explained in emails to news organizations that the color-coding was based on various exemptions of Oregon Public Records law or Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) statutes.

All of this begs two questions. If the University of Oregon really, truly has nothing to hide regarding its internal handling of the rape scandal, why sully the name of Ellsworth Kelly and redact the very answers the public seeks? And why should a few state legislators in Yamhill County care?

Good question. At the heart of the answer is money.

Gottfredson is one of the state’s highest-paid employees, making at least $600,000 in salary and perquisites annually. Mullens is compensated to the tune of $500,000 per year, not including all his perks. Altman signed a contract extension in November, guaranteeing him $1.8 million in salary through the 2019-20 basketball season. As public employees, it would be disrespectful to their position not to allow the public to inspect every detail of their work – including how they go about it.

Also potentially at stake: untold hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding. The muckraking blog UOMatters pointed out that the university community was never informed of a sexual assault occurring within it, a violation of the Clery Act on college campus security. The UO administrators’ approach to the scandal will be inspected by journalists to see if emergency response and Clery Act protocols pertaining to sexual assault were violated in any way. It is entirely possible that, if the University of Oregon violated the Clery Act in handling the basketball players’ case, its federal funding down to the last dollar could be pulled from its coffers. That would be highly embarrassing to the state of Oregon, for its purported flagship university to lose its dearly needed federal funding.

That need is exacerbated by the fact that the state legislature absolved the citizens of Oregon of controlling their public universities, allowing the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Portland State University to break away from the Oregon University System and form their own boards of trustees. We get it. Times are tough. Colleges are expensive to operate and difficult to oversee. Higher education clearly is not a priority of this Kitzhaber administration. The state allocated $48 million for the University of Oregon’s operating budget in 2013-14, which is 5 percent of the total operating budget. State legislators have put their (lack of) money where their mouths are.

If the financial argument cannot compel you to ask questions about university administrators’ conduct in this matter, perhaps you might consider shame. Remember Jerry Sandusky? The beloved pedophile of a Penn State defensive coordinator who lured young boys into the Nittany Lions’ football facilities? Should state employees be responsible for the sex crimes they commit, or that are occurring under their watch? Should the citizens of Oregon continue to nod and move along when evidence exists that colleges are petri dishes for sexual mistreatment of women? In April, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a list of 55 public universities under investigation for mishandling sexual assault incidents or allegations. UO was not on that list. Neither was OSU. What happens if either school is added to the investigation list?

Do the citizens of the state of Oregon not deserve a collection of university administrators who sensitively handle sexual assault allegations?

If they do, here is the perfect opportunity to show the citizens of Oregon – and the out-of-state students attending Oregon colleges – that people care. Public demands upon the University of Oregon for documents without redaction would be a lovely start. Legislation strengthening Oregon Public Records laws (which, thanks again, we like those) would do wonders for your communities. If Gottfredson, Mullens, Altman and their ilk cannot handle transparency, perhaps they cannot handle their duties as public employees. Show them the light.

A number of good men and women across the state have been diligently working on this case with the intent of uncovering the truth. It started with one incident and has snowballed into calls for a comprehensive review of sexual assault allegation protocols at public universities. This is far from irrational. This is democracy at work. Leave no stone unturned.

Thank you for your consideration, and please remember, for future reference, that taxpayers are not just fans but stakeholders, too, of our public universities.

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