Guarding the Private Parts of a Public University

The spate of sexual-harassment controversies on the Boulder campus may have tarnished the University of Colorado's reputation, but there's still one area of endeavor in which CU leads the pack. When it comes to bureaucratic flimflam in response to requests for public information, nobody does it better.

By state law, CU's internal harassment complaints and investigative proceedings aren't public records, but many other documents relating to the issue are supposedly available for inspection--including statistical summaries of the number of complaints, budget records detailing travel expenses, raises and promotions, and memoranda dealing with changes in policy and procedure. Yet efforts to obtain data and comment from various university officials have been met with a host of excuses that, while falling short of outright refusal to follow the law, result in denial of access to public information.

Last month Westword faxed a four-page request for records and clarification to CU-Boulder's media-relations office. It took officials two weeks to prepare a three-page response, which, with few exceptions, recites the refrain "no documentation currently available" to more than thirty questions. A footnote explains that the phrase means either that the record doesn't exist or that "the University has not yet been able to retrieve it."

How many harassment complaints has the university's Ombuds Office and its Sexual Harassment Committee received since its new harassment policy was implemented last fall? According to CU, there's no documentation currently available--despite the fact that some of the data sought has already been published in the campus newspaper and that annual statistics on the complaints are supposed to be released by the end of each fiscal year.

Several questions that touched on specific cases were answered with a predictable "Pending litigation. No comment." But officials were equally tight-lipped in response to several general questions about harassment policy.

Why doesn't the university routinely notify complainants of any disciplinary actions taken as a result of their complaints? No documentation currently available.

How much money does the university allot to the Boulder chancellor's discretionary fund? No documentation currently available.

Is there a university policy governing how the discretionary funds are used? No document exists.

Although CU did comply with a request to inspect budget records from the chancellor's office, officials declined to explain certain expenditures or even to confirm that the records were accurate. Several questions were referred to Chancellor Roderick Park, who granted a ten-minute phone interview but referred budget questions back to the media-relations office, which replied--you guessed it.

Asked to account for the unresponsive response, CU spokesman David Grimm offers several explanations: that the university isn't required to "create" a record in response to a specific request; that it's tough to reach people around graduation time; that many records might be tied up with legal counsel. But there's another possible answer, too.

"I'm not sure this request would have been handled the same way if it came from one of the dailies," Grimm says.

Stonewalling Westword has been a habit at CU for years, it seems, ever since a 1989 article on then-football coach Bill McCartney. Public-records requests from other, more favored media are handled quite differently. In March the University of Colorado at Denver took only eleven days to respond to a request from the Rocky Mountain News for information comparing lawsuit payouts at the various campuses. The university claims that the resulting charts--records created for the News at taxpayer expense--took an estimated 61 hours of attorney time and 18 hours of staff time to compile.

In fairness to CU, it should be noted that the university did provide Westword, free of charge, a copy of its current sexual-harassment policy.

With a page missing.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast