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June 14, 2007

State-relateds oppose inclusion in open records law

Representatives of Pitt, Penn State and Temple universities are united in their efforts to exclude Pennsylvania’s state-related universities from a proposal to strengthen the state’s open records law.

A state Senate committee heard testimony June 4 on Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) that would expand the state’s 1957 Right to Know law to include community colleges and state-related universities among a broader list of entities subject to the law.

In written testimony to the Senate’s state government committee, Pitt Vice Chancellor for Governmental Relations Paul Supowitz stated that “the University fully supports the need to be accountable to the Commonwealth for the Commonwealth dollars that it receives,” noting that the state’s appropriation makes up about 11 percent of the University budget.

But he also cited “economic loss, invasion of legitimate privacy interests and threats to the property and safety of individuals and groups within the University community” among the reasons that state-related universities should continue to be exempt from the law.

In addition to the cost of handling open-records requests, he argued that Pitt would lose leverage in negotiating contracts and could find it more difficult to retain faculty if contracts or individual salaries were made public.

Among potential damage to the University’s research interests, Supowitz stated that the University’s ability to develop patents and commercialize new intellectual property could be harmed if premature disclosure of sensitive information on research were required.

In addition, he stated that open records could give animal rights activists access to information on the location of research animals, or personal information on researchers that could be used to harass them and their families.

“Applying an open records law to a research university inappropriately creates access to information that should never be public,” he stated.

He also stated that the University’s sponsorship agreements, technology transfer activities and donor relations all could be harmed by making details of those deals and relationships public.

He argued that faculty, staff and student privacy could be at risk, as well.

In testimony before the committee, Penn State President Graham Spanier echoed many of Supowitz’s arguments, telling the committee that SB 1 goes well beyond making Penn State accountable for how it spends public funds.

A written statement Spanier submitted to the committee argued that SB 1 would “fundamentally change the way we operate, the way our trustees govern and the way I administer their policies. Frankly, we will have to operate in a way that will make us less nimble and less competitive with the other major research universities in the nation.”

Temple University counsel George E. Moore argued that SB 1 would impose burdens that would hinder universities’ ability to carry out their educational and research missions. He asked that lawmakers clarify that only written requests should oblige an agency to respond and that sanctions for frivolous requests be imposed.

He also questioned why the state-related universities were included in SB 1, but not state-assisted private institutions or institutions that receive state Institutional Assistance Grant funding. The state’s IAG program provides formula grants to help independent postsecondary institutions maintain enrollments and stabilize their educational costs. Approximately 86 institutions, including two- and four-year schools as well as some business and technical schools, are eligible.

“We submit that if the Right to Know Act is to be applied to the state-relateds, than it should be applied to every college and university that receives commonwealth funding, directly or indirectly. Otherwise the state-related universities will be placed at an unfair and expensive competitive disadvantage as to our peer institutions,” his written remarks stated.

In an interview with the University Times, Supowitz said it would be difficult to rank which of the potential impacts he cited could be most detrimental. “I think it’s the whole package,” he said.

He elaborated on the potential expense in processing requests, estimating there could be annual costs of $75,000 to $100,000 to support new staff members to handle the requests. In addition, there would be the less-tangible cost in terms of the time involved for other employees around the University who would be retrieving information to satisfy the requests.

“It would be significant,” he said.

He argued that the University already provides detailed information on how it spends its state appropriation, adding that the state auditor general audits the University each year and can disallow any inappropriate expenses from the appropriation. But, he argued, while the University understands the need for transparent government, Pitt is not a state agency and should not be treated as one.

Testimony from the June 4 hearing is available online at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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