The University of Minnesota can do better in how quickly and efficiently it turns over public information even as the volume of requests it fields has grown rapidly.
That's the takeaway of a new review by the U's general counsel, which pointed out that the onslaught of increasingly complex requests has put the office that handles them to the test, resulting in issues such as inconsistent redactions. The report also suggests a need for more training and sense of urgency for employees across the five-campus system.
University President Joan Gabel ordered the review after a Star Tribune story in July noted missteps in the U's handling of a request for correspondence related to renaming campus buildings, including improperly redacting several e-mails in which faculty task force members acknowledged the limitations of their own work.
Some officials, including members of the U's governing board and the chair of the state Senate Higher Education Committee, had voiced concern over that episode. They said they were especially troubled by a note from one of then-President Eric Kaler's deputy chiefs of staff who had urged task force members to delete an e-mail so they would not have to release it publicly. The university stressed it was a one-time lapse, but critics said it raised broader transparency questions.
The general counsel's review did not address that incident.
It did recommend universitywide training for employees who handle requests from the public. It also called for adding a staff member with legal expertise to the U's Records and Information Management Office and considering a deadline of five business days for departments to turn over requested information, except in extraordinary cases.
Gabel said in a statement that she will discuss acting on the report's recommendations with U leaders in the coming weeks.
"I am confident this review and the actions that result will help us to improve while also further strengthening practices that are already working well in line with our overall commitment to transparency and accountability," Gabel said.
Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, the Senate Higher Education Committee chair, said he commends Gabel for ordering the review in the first month of her presidency and ensuring it was completed quickly, which he said "sets an important tone."
"With a $4 billion budget, they can figure out how to be accountable and responsive," he said.
A rise in data requests
The U received about 100 public data requests in fiscal 2002 — a number that ballooned to 830 requests in the most recent fiscal year. In the past six months, the university's three-member records management office has gotten an average of four requests per business day.
The U has also seen an uptick in more complex requests, such as those involving e-mail correspondence or multiple types of redactions. Still, the report says, the records office reduced the amount of time it takes to turn over data, from 85 days on average in fiscal 2017 to almost 40 days last fiscal year.
The report also zeroed in on other challenges, such as decentralized record keeping with academic departments and other units storing and tracking their own data. The records office does not track how responsive departments are to data requests, but the report found "anecdotal evidence suggesting that employees do not always timely collect and make accessible information to the RIM [Records and Information Management] office."
A recent Star Tribune request for the U's contracts with executive search firms took almost nine months to process as the records office sought to collect those documents from each department — and some contracts were never provided. But the records office has at times expedited the newspaper's requests to accommodate coverage on deadline.
The report said the U has already taken steps to improve its efforts to provide public data, including developing additional training and a system to track timeliness and efficiency. It also raised the possibility of approaching the Legislature to change the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act to explicitly allow public institutions to object to requests based on the "unreasonable burden" they place on their staff.
Anderson said he is open to a conversation about limiting frivolous requests but stressed he would be extremely cautious about any changes to the law that risk infringing on transparency.
Regent Michael Hsu said the report should have addressed concerns raised by the former deputy chief of staff's instruction to destroy public data. He said ensuring the records office has adequate staffing and technology is important, but even more crucial is a systemwide culture of transparency — and clear penalties for employees who don't live up to that responsibility.
Ken Powell, who chairs the U's governing board, said the report was thorough and offered strong recommendations, including better use of metrics to ensure the university handles requests as quickly as possible.
"I think it's good work and it will help us a lot," he said.