By Chronicle Editor
State University System officials seem to be on some kind of information-control tear lately.
The state Board of Regents only recently talked themselves out of a "gag rule" a proposal to funnel all regents' individual thoughts through the Commissioner of Higher Education Office for sterilization before they are suitable for public consumption. Now the commissioner and campus presidents and chancellors are insisting on secret meetings.
According to an agenda secured by the Associated Press, a meeting was set for earlier this month to discuss the U-system's budget request to the Legislature as well as tuition and student fees, among a host of other issues.
When an AP reporter arrived to attend the meeting, he was asked to leave. When he refused, the commissioner canceled the meeting. Since then, 14 news organizations, including the Chronicle, have sued to prevent similar meetings unless they are open to the public.
There's no question that conducting business any business, whether it's running a grocery story or setting government policy is more difficult when it's open to the public. Any slip of the tongue, any display of ignorance about the issues, any allusion to mistakes in the past are right there in front of everybody if accounts of the meetings are reported in the media.
Private businesses have the right to conduct their business in private and do so routinely. But in the case of publicly funded agencies and institutions, public meetings are the law.
A lawyer for the U-system disagrees. Citing case law he thinks secret meetings between the campus executives and the commissioner are legal. The courts will decide if he's right.
In the meantime, the the U-system officials might consider that conducting the meetings in public might just be smart policy. Though it would certainly invite more public discussion and criticism in the early stages of policy development, it also will lead to a greater understanding of the issues and wider acceptance of U-system policy in the long run.
Any discussion of budgeting issues for state universities, and most certainly discussion of tuition and fees charged students and their parents, are of compelling public interest.
Any discussion of these matters by U-system officials should be conducted in public. Anything less implies they have something to hide.