As the story broke this summer that acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones would not be granted tenure at UNC, reporters scrambled to file requests for public records.
An essential tool of journalistic investigations, the requests were filed by reporters across the state to ask the University for internal communications, meeting minutes and donor agreements.
But, they found their requests consistently delayed or denied — even after certain documents had already been leaked to the public.
“It’s frustrating … being a recent graduate of the Hussman School and understanding how important and how stressed it is that we need to be constantly asking different things of our governmental bodies,” INDY Week reporter Sara Pequeño said. “Despite that, not being able to get any actual information from the University that taught us those things — that's been something that's more disappointing than anything.”
Since the Hannah-Jones saga began in May, over 200 records requests have been filed through the University’s fulfillment software — NextRequest. It is difficult to determine how many of them are related to Hannah-Jones, because UNC redacts the names of personnel listed in these requests.
According to UNC Media Relations, the public records office has received 59 requests related to Hannah-Jones since April 27 and has provided more than 100 responsive documents consisting of tens of thousand of pages in response.
North Carolina’s public records law requires all branches of the state government to provide documents produced or received by state agencies unless they are specifically exempt from the statute. What makes the Hannah-Jones case difficult is that the state’s public records law includes a broad exemption for “personnel” matters — i.e. documents relating to hiring, firing or promotion of employees.
Reporters wanted to know who blocked the vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones, so they requested emails from top administration members at UNC — as well as members of the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees — that mentioned her name. The bulk of these requests were not returned until early August, nearly three months after the story first broke.
Other requests were flat out rejected. After the campus community learned that Walter Hussman, the Arkansas newspaper magnate and mega-donor to the eponymous Hussman School, had written to top administrators to caution them about Hannah-Jones’ hire, reporters sought out more on Hussman.
Multiple requests were filed asking for UNC’s agreement with Hussman regarding his donation to the journalism school and the naming of the school after him. Though reporters awaited responses, the document was eventually leaked to the News & Observer in July.
The documents show that the University agreed to permanently rename the journalism school after Hussman in exchange for his $25 million donation to the school, which is to be paid in installments. This was already public knowledge, but the contract also vaguely lays out the conditions under which Hussman’s name could be removed — something some professors have already expressed interest in following the news of his disapproval of Hannah-Jones' potential hiring.
Under the contract, the University can remove Hussman’s name if he stops sending the payments of his gift. The contract also stipulates that the name rests upon “the University's initial and continued satisfaction of its Naming Policies and Procedures (including the approval of the University's Board of Trustees.)”
Despite the fact that the contract is now publicly available, the public records office has denied requests for it.
“There are no existing or responsive University records subject to disclosure under the North Carolina Public Records Act,” the public records office wrote to Brooks Fuller, a professor at Elon University and director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, after he requested a copy of the agreement.
“With UNC in particular, we've seen that the public records office, if it doesn't want to disclose a record, it will often respond with a convoluted, double-barreled response that leads the requester to believe that either records don't exist, or that records exists but UNC is claiming that they don't have to produce them,” Fuller said.
UNC Senior Director for Public Records Gavin Young said in a written statement that the University has cut its response time to records in half, though the number of requests has increased by 32 percent.
“Carolina’s Public Records Office takes its responsibility to comply with the North Carolina Public Records Act seriously," Young said. "Our staff works diligently to gather records in a timely manner, while ensuring compliance with not only the public records act, but various federal and state laws that require confidentiality of certain information."
After seeing the difficulties with open government in the Hannah-Jones case, Fuller recruited professors, local journalists and media experts into his coalition.
“We saw an opportunity to both hold University leaders accountable, and also educate the public about how the transparency systems at UNC actually worked,” Fuller said.
Now, reporters from The Daily Tar Heel, The News & Observer, N.C. Policy Watch and other outlets are working with the coalition to get access to records related to Hannah-Jones’ hiring, Hussman’s influence and more.
Multiple requests remain unanswered, such as the Open Government Coalitions’ request for documents pertaining to any monitoring of Hussman faculty emails by administration. This comes after N.C. Policy Watch reported that the University was investigating Hussman School professors in hopes of finding who leaked the donor agreement.
“There's this inherent issue of the fact that all of our tax dollars are going to a University or going to a university system,” Pequeño said. “And we don't know anything about how it's being run.”
Editor's Note: The Daily Tar Heel is a participant in the public records project spearheaded by the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and Editor-in-Chief Praveena Somasundaram is a signatory on nine public records requests submitted by Brooks Fuller via NextRequest.
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