Penn State University has used an exemption in the state’s Right-to- Know Law to reject requests for details about what school officials knew about Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach accused of abusing young boys, and when they knew it.
Because of the exemption, emails between administration officials and Sandusky, as well as incident reports from campus police, are off-limits to the public, said Terry Mutchler, Executive Director of the state’s Office of Open Records.
Graphic by Alexandra Kanik/PublicSource
“Media and citizens wanting to know what information they can get, the short answer is, outside of a financial report, they can’t get anything,” said Mutchler. “The issue becomes, when taxpayers are footing the bill, what is the level of accountability that taxpayers should be given?”
Contributing public money without raising the level of transparency of an institution is “a calculus for trouble,” she said.
Sandusky told NBC News that he is innocent of the charges, and called his interactions with the boys “horseplay.”
In 2008, Pennsylvania’s legislature revamped the Right-to-Know law, which was considered by many open government advocates to be among the worst in the country. Penn State and three other “state-related” schools—Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln—argued for an exemption from most aspects of the state’s open records law.
The four schools are considered to be public universities, but they are not owned by the state.
The school also used the exemption to decline a request from PublicSource and its news partner, the Allegheny Front, to disclose sources of industry support for research, including contracts pertaining to Marcellus Shale research. They said those contracts were private.
In light of the criminal allegations against Sandusky, at least one state senator wants to expand the reporting requirements for the state-related universities.
John Blake, (D-Scranton) said he plans to draft legislation that would make more of the schools’ records public so they would more closely follow rules for the 14 colleges and universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said Kyle Mullins, Blake’s legislative director.
Graham Spanier, president of Penn State when the law was changed, was outspoken in his view that most aspects of the university’s business—even at a school that receives hundreds of millions in direct support from the public—should not see the light of public scrutiny.
“Penn State lobbied very, very hard against inclusion in the law at all,” said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. The PNA argued against the exemption. “It was their position they were not a public university,” she said.
In 2007, Spanier testified to a state legislative subcommittee that disclosing the university’s relationships with donors, corporate funders, and outside vendors would put Penn State at a competitive disadvantage to other large research universities with which it competes.
Representatives from Pitt and Temple agreed with this position, arguing that since only 10 percent of their budgets come from the state, they should not be considered “public” institutions.
Neither Spanier nor university administration officials could be reached for comment for this story.
The legislature agreed with Spanier. It approved a version of the bill requiring state-related universities to disclose only the salaries of officers and directors, a list of the top 25 paid employees of the university and tax-related information.
Sen. Dominic Pileggi, (R-Chester), the senate sponsor of the 2008 bill, could not be reached for comment.
The four state-related schools form ‘hybrid’ kinds of institutions. They do not receive enough funding to be considered public, but they still take in hundreds of millions of dollars from the state each year.
That strange amalgam begs the question of whether their inner workings should be public, records experts said.
“It’s not common at all to have a university that fits into the middle like that,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which tracks open records laws throughout the country. “Most universities are clearly public or clearly private.”
Dalglish said Penn State officials are not alone in trying to keep their internal dealings private. Even fully funded public universities often try to avoid meeting open records requirements. Some schools argue that since they were started before new open records laws came into effect, they should not be subject to the laws.
Mutchler, the state’s open records officer, said the schools’ position that they are only partially public is an odd position to take.
“That’s like saying you’re a little pregnant,” said Mutchler, who headed a similar open records office in Illinois before coming to Pennsylvania in 2009.
She said similar universities, like the University of Illinois or the University of Wisconsin, “don’t enjoy such blanket protection” as Penn State.
Melewski and other open government advocates argue that Penn State should be required to release more of its records by virtue of the $214 million it receives from the state, and the fact that 6,700 of its employees participate in the State Employees’ Retirement System.
There’s also the name.
“In many places they are, certainly by their name, the face of the state,” said Melewski. “If not public, [Penn State is] quasi-public by nature of what they do.”
Open government advocates said secrecy at the top of the university might be one of the reasons the Sandusky scandal became so outsized.
When those who oversee universities or governments don’t have to let the public know what they are doing, “that’s when you have major problems,” said Karl Idsvoog, a professor of mass communications at Kent State University. “As we’ve seen with Penn State, you end up with a culture where these people think they can do anything.”
Reid R. Frazier is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh and The Marcellus Shale reporter for The Allegheny Front. His science writing and reporting has aired on NPR and in several newspapers and magazines. He is the recipient of the 2011 Carnegie Science Award for reporting and analysis.