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February 6, 2003


Most readers have read or heard statements such as “information is power” or “knowledge is power.” There is abundant evidence it is true. The struggle over access to information is present in a myriad of contexts.

Congress adopted the Freedom of Information Act years ago in response to public pressure for access to information in the federal government’s hands. It provides for disclosure of considerable information but does not require release of other information, such as that dealing with aspects of criminal law enforcement. States also have adopted FOIAs.

There is also federal privacy legislation that limits disclosure of personal information in the government’s possession about individuals. Regulations pursuant to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act deal specifically with patient information and impose a variety of requirements related to the security and privacy of health information held by health care providers, health plans and certain other entities.

It suffices to say it is clear that some federal and state law directly relates either to making available or to keeping confidential certain Pitt-held data.

My interest in the information issue stems from reports of difficulty encountered by members of the University community in obtaining information from the University administration, specific schools and their own departments. The issue of access to information has been raised at Faculty Assembly and Senate Council meetings. I refer here to information not required by law to be maintained as confidential, such as certain information regarding students, absent authorization for disclosure from the student, as well as information the University is under no legal obligation to provide.

All organizations undoubtedly have information they desire to keep secret; for some organizations secrecy is an obsession. An astute observer recently said that secrecy prevents access to information about conduct that is illegal, unethical or embarrassing; that explains why much information is kept secret.

With respect to Pitt, much of the information that appears difficult to obtain, at worst, might be embarrassing. My guess is that some information sought and not obtained doesn’t even exist in any recorded form. Sometimes the nature of the information sought is such that it would explain why something was, or was not, done by the University, or a specific University official.

Apparently many administrators here, based on some of their actions, agree that information is power. Because they fear sharing power, despite their public expressions of support for collegiality, faculty and staff involvement, and the like, they withhold information or provide information in ways that obscure its meaning.

A wealth of information is made available through the Public Affairs office of the University. Take a look at Pitt Magazine, the content of the Pitt Chronicle, and Research Notes in the University Times. The information selectively provided is almost uniformly favorable; a good bit of it concerns research dollars coming to the University. But other information, not found in releases from Public Affairs, seems to be closely guarded.

The response to requests of mine for information has often been, “Why do you want it?” That may be a legitimate question in some contexts. Should the “acceptability” of the reason for the request be left solely to an administrator who will be deciding whether to permit access to information he/she controls? A refusal to provide information to a member of the University community should be supported by a legitimate reason — a reason indicating the interest or values that come into play, and the potential harm the release of the information might create.

Sometimes no response to a request for information is made, probably in the hope that the request will not be pursued. The ENRON and other corporate debacles, and the mishandling of large sums of money in the wake of 9/11 by charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, have prompted much talk, and a little action, aimed at bringing about more transparency with respect to information availability and comprehensibility.

Refusal to give information is a stimulus to some to press harder to obtain it, with the expectation that whoever is blocking access to the information has something to hide. Of course, a refusal often is not contested and the matter dies.

While law may not require that information be given, absence of a legal requirement should not necessarily be determinative of access, when an organization is deciding whether certain information should be disclosed. Assuming no law governs the availability of the information sought, a choice needs to be made between two points of departure in framing a response. One is that requested information should be disclosed, unless there is a good reason not to disclose; the other is to disclose nothing, unless there is a good reason to disclose. By good reason I mean that an important societal or personal interest or value is involved.

Perhaps it is time for those in Pitt’s administration who control information to review their policies, both formal and informal. They might consider whether the point of departure they now use in addressing information disclosure issues remains appropriate, in light of the potential negative impact of refusals to disclose and failures to respond to requests, without apparent justification.

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