Editorial: UM System's Sunshine Law compliance must shape up

The UM System Board of Curators is going to court.

The UM System was petitioned by a nonprofit education advocacy group called the National Council on Teacher Quality to give them public records access to course syllabi, mostly from the College of Education, as part of a new nationwide evaluation project they are conducting. After receiving formal requests for each of the system's four universities, the university custodian of records finally responded to the NCTQ after more than eight months, denying them access to the syllabi. The university claims the syllabi are not public records, under the rationale they are "intellectual property" of faculty. The NCTQ then sued the university to force them to release the syllabi.

We are not going to claim that the syllabi should or should not be released, nor that the university should fight the NCTQ in court or settle with them out of court. Such opinions will be developed in the coming weeks as more information comes out and both sides continue to present their arguments.

What we do take great issue with is the UM System Board of Curator's incredibly, unlawfully slow response to the NCTQ's requests. The Missouri Sunshine Law requires that public institutions respond fully to all public records requests within three business days. However, the custodian of records stayed silent for eight entire months, through four formal requests from the NCTQ before finally issuing its denial to release syllabi.

Accountability and answerability lie at the heart of a fair public institution. Taking eight months to do what is required by law to be done in three days is unacceptable, and that is the plain truth. Beyond what it says of how the university treats education-reform groups, we are concerned about what it says of how the university might treat anyone who lawfully asks for information.

Regardless of whether syllabi should be public record, regardless of who is asking for the syllabi and regardless of how the National Council on Teacher Quality - or anyone - would use the syllabi, the Sunshine Law is there for a reason: to ensure transparency in government and to ensure the role of the University of Missouri as a servile and helpful public institution is not perverted or ignored. The UM system's failure to comply with the law is disappointing and worrisome and will likely end up being quite costly to those whose money makes the University possible: Missouri taxpayers and students. The coming months will reveal what happens of the university's fight with the NCTQ, but the administration and records office must resolve to stop allowing such a culture of inaccessibility - and that, it seems, will take a while.

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