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How Secrecy Pervades Academic Institutions

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Although supposedly dedicated to the search for truth, virtually every aspect of academic life in America today is shrouded in “obfuscating secrecy,” a distinguished university economist writes.

From the selection of trustees and presidents to faculty hiring, promotion, and the awarding of tenure, most university business “is carried on behind closed doors in defiance of open-meeting laws” and “hidden from public scrutiny,” writes David Whitten, professor of economics emeritus, retired, of Auburn University, Alabama.

Parents of applicants may be aware that admissions committees do not ordinarily share their reasons for selecting or rejecting them, but few recognize how pervasive secrecy in Academia may also affect them as taxpayers from learning about political favoritism, payoffs, and conflicts of interest.

“Because secrecy surrounds trustee selection, confirmation, and service, citizens and voters have to determine in ignorance whether elected officials are putting the best people in positions of authority over educational institutions,” Whitten writes in “The Long Term View,” (Volume 6) published by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. 

Trustee selection, he writes, is based “on political considerations and financial contributions,” particularly on the boards of public universities to which governors often name individuals that have kicked in to finance their political campaigns. At private universities, trustees often are named not for their expertise but for their endowments.

 “The appointment is a payoff, a tribute, a point of prestige often pointed to with pride by trustees who never darkened the doors of a college as a student,” Whitten writes, adding that “it is common” for trustees “to financially benefit from their connection with the institution.”

As examples of universities whose trustees allegedly had benefited financially from their posts, Whitten cited the University of Tennessee, Alamo Community College of San Antonio, Tex., and his own Auburn University.

Universities routinely conceal the names of those they are considering for the presidency and newspapers such as The Cincinnati Post have had to sue to keep search committees (in this instance the University of Cincinnati) from meeting in secret in violation of open meeting laws, Whitten writes.

Additionally, the Kansas City Star clashed with the University of Missouri over internal audit records and the University of Hawaii’s regents were sued by a professional journalism society over secrecy about the university president’s salary, disclosed to be $442,000.

Whitten also cited like secrecy fights between Academia and the press involving the University of Minnesota and Indiana University.Most of the work by academic boards of regency and trustees “is done behind closed doors unless there is someone to bring charges,” Whitten writes.

He cited the example of a 1993 audit of Boston University by the State’s Attorney General into conflict of interest, questionable decisions about executive pay, and negligence “by establishing new governance and management policies.” Whitten said, “In a classic example of a trustee smoke screen, (Boston) university officials would not disclose details about the policy changes.”

Whitten goes on to say, “Faculty hiring and tenure and promotion decisions are confidential, so young men and women hired or denied a position, promoted or turned down, tenured or released do not know if their fate was sealed by their performance, politics, or circumstances over which they had no control.”

 In hiring, faculty interviewers meet in secret and “the candidate is not likely to ever know what occurred at the meeting or in the vote, even if a job is offered and taken.”  And after three years on the job, the professor who has not made significant progress will be released, Whitten writes. “There may be a vote by the tenured faculty, but the reasons for the decision are not shared with the candidate.”

 As for admissions, “When parents try to scout a path through the muddle of admissions policies, they find themselves rebuffed by the authorities, who have no interest in opening the process to scrutiny and thereby risking loss of their power of discretion,” Whitten writes.Secrecy even exists in the very process of accrediting institutions of higher learning by associations that are public service corporations whose operations are “rarely a straightforward, open process with operating rules clearly stated.”

 Instead, Whitten continues, “Unwritten rules, developed and applied in secret, can be more important in a final accreditation decision than the stated ones.” He cited the example of the American Bar Association that accredits most law schools as an organization that allegedly demands “higher-than-market faculty salary levels and costly, unnecessary expenditures in virtually every other aspect of law schools, thereby forcing tuition and fees too high for most minorities, working class people, and graduates of less than elite colleges and universities.”

“Due to secrecy, nobody outside the small accrediting in-group can assess whether schools are being treated equally, whether there is unfairness among schools, and whether there is favoritism for schools with connections,” the economist points out.

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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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