"Party school" findings shed new light on University of Iowa's secrecy on polling

Since November, the University of Iowa has refused to release documents related to annual statewide polls measuring Iowans’ attitudes about the university over the last three years. Officials have cited a provision in Iowa Code allowing “Reports to governmental agencies” to remain confidential if their release “would give advantage to competitors and serve no public purpose.” But Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans has referenced decisions by the Iowa Supreme Court and lower courts, which indicate that the exemption “was not designed to cover documents produced for the government at public expense.”

I have assumed the university was concealing documents related to the polling because the work was among several projects awarded through no-bid contracts to a company controlled by former Republican Party of Iowa Chair Matt Strawn. Peter Matthes, the university vice president who supervised those contracts, had prior connections to Strawn through Iowa Republican circles. Matthes also was involved in hiring new University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, both as a member of the presidential search committee and as a participant in one of Harreld’s secret meetings with key decision-makers.

An exclusive report by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press yesterday pointed to a more straightforward reason to keep the poll findings secret: Iowa’s image as a “party school” had hurt its reputation “as a serious academic institution.”

Foley reported on February 4,

A Republican pollster warned the University of Iowa a year ago that its public standing was suffering from an image as a heavy-drinking school where sexual assault was too common, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press that school officials have withheld from the public.

Washington-based pollster Chris Perkins told university leaders that those perceptions meant the school was no longer considered safe by some parents and students, and had lost some credibility “as a serious academic institution.” Perkins, who received the polling work under a controversial university no-bid contract with a GOP insider, recommended specific messages for a communications strategy to combat the image.

“Iowans believe that cleaning up the party school image at the University of Iowa will result in attracting more students, gaining more research grants and overall improving the education system,” Perkins wrote in the 52-page report, which was prepared for university leaders following a statewide poll of 1,000 residents in December 2014.

This aspect of the university’s reputation is nothing new; I remember high school students talking about it during the 1980s. But heavy drinking and alcohol-related crimes on campus have become become a bigger concern in recent years, prompting Iowa City to adopt a 2010 ordinance banning people under age 21 from bars after 10 pm. The ordinance led to hundreds of arrests for students in bars after hours but did not prevent Iowa from being named the country’s number 2 party school by the Princeton Review in 2012. The following year, the university rose to the top spot in the same rankings. A spokesperson for the university cited National College Health Assessment data showing a decline in binge drinking on campus since 2009. Nevertheless, the school still had (and at this writing, maintains) an A+ grade for “party scene,” based on student-written reviews at the Niche website.

As mentioned above, the university’s legal counsel denied requests for documents related to this poll and similar ones taken in 2013 and 2015. I was not even able to obtain a copy of the questionnaire or details on the methodology, let alone the findings. The university has cited the same exemption to withhold information about focus groups Strawn’s company was contracted to organize. It’s remarkable university officials would insist “no public purpose” is served by telling the public how Iowans view one of their own public universities. As for giving “advantage to competitors,” my impression is that plenty of smaller private colleges already incorporate messaging about a less-rowdy campus life into their pitch to prospective students and parents.

Evans wrote to university President Harreld in December, urging him to overrule legal counsel and release all documents related to Strawn’s work. You can read that full letter here. Excerpts:

A fundamental aspect of Iowa’s “sunshine” statutes is their assumption that all government records and government meetings are open to the public unless a case for confidentiality is made in one of the laws’ exemptions. When there is ambiguity in the construction or application of these laws, the Legislature made it clear that such ambiguity should be resolved in favor of openness.

The Iowa Supreme Court has been adamant on this point, too, citing, for example, Chapter 22.8(3), which notes that most records are open to public inspection “even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.” […]

The university spent $320,000 on this research and these outreach efforts [contracted to Strawn]. Iowans have a right to see how the university is spending their money–whether that is their tax money, tuition money of their sons, daughters, and grandchildren, or contributions they have made to the University of Iowa Foundation.

Iowans should be allowed to judge for themselves whether this $320,000 was a worthwhile expenditure. The people of Iowa are entitled to know what this research found about the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the university.

Moreover, the exemption from the openness requirement that Ms. Reasoner relied upon was not designed to cover documents produced for the government at public expense. […]

That exemption protects documents generated by private entities that are regulated by a government agency or that must disclose reports to the government where the release by the receiving agencies would advantage the private entities’ competitors without serving any public purpose.

Harreld told a reporter last month that he would keep answering critics who write to him, because “if I stop responding I won’t be the kind of president this institution needs and deserves.” But he never did reply to the letter from Evans, kicking it to the legal department instead.

Last week, the university’s general counsel Carroll Reasoner wrote back to Evans, who provided a copy of the correspondence to Bleeding Heartland. Scroll down to read the three-page letter, in which Reasoner disputed Evans’ reading of case law and explained why the university sees “no public purpose” in releasing the documents. From the first page:

The University of Iowa hired The Strawn Company to obtain a survey of Iowans across the State to determine their perceptions and impressions of the University. This information is then used to craft messages used by the University to recruit talent–faculty, staff and students and to identify areas of concern among the same group in order to address those concerns, whether substantive or perceived. The University competes with other businesses for talent in the employment market place, with other institutions of higher education for students and strives to achieve a positive impression with all stakeholders.

The Iowa Open Records statute (Iowa Code Chapter 22) defines “public records” as all records “of or belonging to the state…” There is an interesting question of whether the copyrighted report prepared by the Strawn Company meets this threshold test as a public record, as the report is the work of the Strawn Company, using their proprietary process for preparation of questions and analysis of the results.

Worth noting here: Strawn’s firm does not conduct any polling directly. As Foley reported for the AP in December, the Strawn Company subcontracted all of the survey work to the Texas-based firm Wilson Perkins Allen. It’s not clear what, if anything, Strawn contributed to the work product, or whether Wilson Perkins Allen employees prepared the questions and analyzed the data collected. That is one reason the public has a legitimate interest in seeing all related documents.

Others have suggested the university may have overpaid for the polls and focus groups by waiving rules on competitive bidding in order to award the work to Strawn. The University of Iowa’s Operations Manual (11.9) states that competitive bidding rules may be waived for contracts exceeding $25,000 when “There is only one person or firm that can provide the requirement. No other known person or firm is available with an equivalent service or supply.” Clearly, the Strawn Company was not the only firm that could provide an equivalent service to the University of Iowa.

Back to Reasoner’s response to Evans. She interprets a relevant Iowa Supreme Court ruling to mean documents subject to open records law were “produced by or originated from the government,” in contrast to documents belonging to the government, which “originate from other sources but are held by public officers in their official capacities.” According to Reasoner’s reading of that high court decision, a document subject to an open records request

has to be the result of an official function of the government body. The University has no duty or contractual obligation to do this polling. The public’s right to access public records does not extend to every piece of paper in the possession of a public employee.

Not being an attorney, I don’t know the legal definition of “originated from the government,” so I can’t comment on whether a report contracted by a government body qualifies. But Reasoner’s argument about “official functions” seems odd. By her logic, any number of activities university officials spend money on could be excluded from open records requests, because the expenditure was not related to a “duty or contractual obligation.”

Since the university employs personnel dedicated to communications and marketing, work commissioned to improve messaging to prospective employees and students seems by definition to be “an official function.” On the previous page of her letter, Reasoner acknowledged information received under the contract with the Strawn Company “is then used to craft messages used by the University to recruit talent.” How is that not an official function of the university?

The most amazing part of Reasoner’s letter is yet to come. After quoting the Iowa Code exemption previously cited to justify withholding documents from the public, she asserted (emphasis added),

This report, if released, would give advantage to our competitors, who are recruiting the same talent pool for employees and students and seeking to obtain a favorable impression with stakeholders. The release would serve no public purpose as the courts have interpreted that phrase. If others want to know how the University is perceived, they can conduct their own polling.

Words fail me, so I’ll quote from a commentary Evans provided to Iowa media organizations, including Bleeding Heartland. (The full text is at the end of this post.)

The University of Iowa … [is] not a private school or a private business that can operate outside the close scrutiny of the public.

During the past two years, the university has hired a company owned by Matt Strawn, the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, to perform research and outreach work for the university. The Strawn Company was chosen without the university seeking bids from other vendors. […]

The new president of the university, Bruce Harreld, does not want to let the people of Iowa see what the university learned from its $320,000. He wants to treat the polling, focus group research and the response strategies the money purchased as if he were still an executive at IBM or Boston Market. […]

Reasoner claimed the university’s secrecy is required in this case under a section of the open records law that pertains to “reports to governmental agencies which, if released, would give advantage to competitors and serve no public purpose.”

But Reasoner is wrong. That section says such records “shall be kept confidential, unless otherwise ordered … by the lawful custodian of the records.” And the lawful custodian of the documents pertaining to the polling and focus groups is the university.

It’s also important to note that past Iowa Supreme Court cases regarding this section have been brought by businesses, not government entities, and those businesses objected to the release of reports they were required to prepare and provide to the government. In those cases, the court upheld the public release of the documents.

Reasoner reads the Iowa Supreme Court’s rulings in this area differently. On pages two and three of her letter to Evans, she argued that one case centered on grant applications to the Iowa Department of Public Health, while another related to utility company rates and a third “involved various nursing homes that received Medicaid payments for some patients.” She concluded,

The polling analysis and report is not a grant application to obtain state dollars and to explain how those funds would be used, nor is it information used to justify utility rates, or to set Medicaid payments. The report is a copyrighted analysis of public opinion prepared at the request of the University. The statute does not require that the report be released just because some member of the public might want to know what was in it. There must be a public purpose, like knowing how grant money will be spent, rates are set or how much the State pays for Medicaid recipients.

So Reasoner admits there is a public purpose in knowing how Iowa Department of Public Health grant money will be spent. Yet she denies any public purpose in knowing what the University of Iowa received for money spent on polling, focus groups, and social media outreach.

Reasoner admits that the Iowa Supreme Court “found release of the [IDPH] grants served the public purpose of making the grant application more open and competitive,” which is ironic, since the activities contracted to Strawn should have triggered competitive bidding under university regulations, Iowa Code, and federal law.

In his commentary reacting to Reasoner’s letter, Evans speculated,

I think it’s safe to conclude that Iowans’ views of the university are not ones the university wants to trumpet in a press release. If the research had found Iowans heralding the university’s academic prowess or its cost vs. value in Iowans’ eyes, you probably would see billboards touting that.

I’m betting Iowans are not favorably impressed by the university’s ranking as one of the nation’s top “party schools,” by frequent news about binge drinking there, by officials’ response to sexual assaults of students or by the amount of scholarship aid the university provides to needy students.

But the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that embarrassment by government officials is not sufficient reason for keeping government documents out of the hands of the public. And I have a hunch that Iowans’ impressions were embarrassing to University of Iowa officials, and that’s why President Harreld and attorney Reasoner are fighting to keep this secret.

Foley’s latest scoop suggests Evans was right. But I suspect there is more going on here than hiding widespread concerns about partying in Iowa City. Harreld and other senior university officials may have political reasons for keeping the documents secret, such as protecting the university’s Vice President for External Relations Matthes from accusations of cronyism in awarding the no-bid contracts to Strawn.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Letter from the University of Iowa’s general counsel Carroll Reasoner to Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council:

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Reasoner to Evans 2 photo ReasonertoEvans2_zpszsabmoj5.jpg

Reasoner to Evans 3 photo ReasonertoEvans3_zpskq5gwitw.jpg

Opinion column by Randy Evans:

U of I secrecy not appropriate for public school

The philosophy behind Iowa’s public records and public meetings laws is quite simple: Government in Iowa should be open to the people of Iowa except in a few rare instances.

After all, this is their government. Government does not belong to government officials or to government agencies.

The people need to have ready access to government documents and government meetings to effectively monitor the activities and actions of officials and employees who are elected or hired to run our state and local governments. Without that access, people won’t be able to hold government and its employees accountable.

That’s important background for a controversy that has been bubbling for a couple of months over secrecy by top administrators at the University of Iowa.

This is a controversy that should concern Iowans. The University of Iowa belongs to them. It’s not a private school or a private business that can operate outside the close scrutiny of the public.

During the past two years, the university has hired a company owned by Matt Strawn, the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, to perform research and outreach work for the university. The Strawn Company was chosen without the university seeking bids from other vendors.

Since 2013, the university has paid Strawn about $320,000. That’s a lot of money, whether it comes from the taxpayers, from tuition paid by University of Iowa students or is donated by Iowans to help this public university.

But there’s a problem with all of this.

The new president of the university, Bruce Harreld, does not want to let the people of Iowa see what the university learned from its $320,000. He wants to treat the polling, focus group research and the response strategies the money purchased as if he were still an executive at IBM or Boston Market.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a statewide organization that advocates for government transparency and accountability, wrote to Harreld in December to make the case for the public release of the questions and results from the opinion polling and focus group research.

As the executive director of the council, I wrote in our letter to Harreld: “You may not yet appreciate fully the motivation that led lawmakers to write the state’s open records and open meetings laws (with strong encouragement and help from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council). They acted in the belief that openness and informed discussion are central to effective government in our state — just as openness and informed discussion are hallmarks of a great university.”

I explained about Iowa’s “sunshine” laws, “When there is ambiguity in the construction or application of these laws, the Legislature made it clear that such ambiguity should be resolved in favor of openness.”

I told him the rationale for the university’s secrecy did not rise to the level the Legislature envisioned when it wrote the open records law. I told the president the university’s lawyer, Carroll Reasoner, “asserts that releasing documents pertaining to the research by these University of Iowa contractors would serve no public purpose. Actually, that is the most important argument in favor of releasing the documents related to the work by the Strawn Company and its subcontractors.”

Iowans are entitled to know what the polling found regarding their perceptions and impressions of the school. I said in my letter, “Public accountability is precisely what the Iowa Legislature had in mind when it wrote the open records law, especially documents generated at public expense that your institution is keeping confidential. If you and the university continue to treat these documents as a secret, you will erode the public trust in the University of Iowa and in your stewardship of the institution.”

The university answered my letter last week. Reasoner was blunt in her response: “If others want to know how the university is perceived, they can conduct their own polling.”

She wrote, “The university competes with other businesses for talent in the employment marketplace, with other institutions of higher education for students and strives to achieve a positive impression with all stakeholders.”

Reasoner claimed the university’s secrecy is required in this case under a section of the open records law that pertains to “reports to governmental agencies which, if released, would give advantage to competitors and serve no public purpose.”

But Reasoner is wrong. That section says such records “shall be kept confidential, unless otherwise ordered … by the lawful custodian of the records.” And the lawful custodian of the documents pertaining to the polling and focus groups is the university.

It’s also important to note that past Iowa Supreme Court cases regarding this section have been brought by businesses, not government entities, and those businesses objected to the release of reports they were required to prepare and provide to the government. In those cases, the court upheld the public release of the documents.

I think it’s safe to conclude that Iowans’ views of the university are not ones the university wants to trumpet in a press release. If the research had found Iowans heralding the university’s academic prowess or its cost vs. value in Iowans’ eyes, you probably would see billboards touting that.

I’m betting Iowans are not favorably impressed by the university’s ranking as one of the nation’s top “party schools,” by frequent news about binge drinking there, by officials’ response to sexual assaults of students or by the amount of scholarship aid the university provides to needy students.

But the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that embarrassment by government officials is not sufficient reason for keeping government documents out of the hands of the public. And I have a hunch that Iowans’ impressions were embarrassing to University of Iowa officials, and that’s why President Harreld and attorney Reasoner are fighting to keep this secret.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a statewide education and advocacy organization that works for open and accountable government. He can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com. The council’s website is www.IFOIC.org.

  • Connection

    I think that there is a direct link between the amount of sexual assaults this school has had and the “sweeping under the rug” of the polls. Undoubtedly there has been much more than the University would care to admit. I’m a student here and am going to be conducting an investigative report on this, it would be great if I could contact the author of this piece directly for further information. Please respond to this.

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