Mike Brake | October 23, 2019
OU’s open records office: a black hole
The first photo ever taken of a black hole is of one near the center of galaxy Messier 87, a conglomeration of stars more than 50 million light-years away. But given its characteristics as a place where matter and light go in but nothing ever comes out again, it could also depict the Open Records Office at the University of Oklahoma. This is the story of a taxpayer-funded Open Records Office that is anything but open, and which appears to spend more time and effort obscuring the truth than revealing it.
On August 29, 2018, I asked the OU Open Records Office for specific information about complaints that had been lodged with the university’s bias reporting hotline. OU had recently experienced some ugly and juvenile incidents of racism—a stupid drunken fraternity song and a female student posing for photos in blackface, if you will recall—and the idea was to see if those incidents were part of an underlying pattern or simply outlying examples of adolescent idiocy.
It is in the public interest to know if the interim president of our state’s largest university was lying about actions he had or had not taken to punish a man for his religious beliefs.
When reporters had examined complaints filed with other university bias reporting hotlines around the country, most had found that the majority of those reports were either unfounded or of minimal significance. Was OU’s hotline receiving similar calls?
This would seem to be information of benefit to the taxpayers who pay for that institution and the parents considering sending their children there.
So I waited for a response. I had specified that identifying information should be redacted from the reports, but I made it clear that I hoped to be able to examine the reports themselves and any resolutions or actions taken as a result of those reports.
On November 6, I received a summary document noting how many reports had been received of what type. No specifics, no reports language. I immediately emailed back clarifying my request for actual report language and dispositions, again noting that I understood that identifying information would need to be redacted.
I waited. And waited. And am still waiting, almost one year later.
When I submitted a supplementary email inquiry on July 29 of this year, 11 months after my initial contact with the Open Records Office and almost nine months since my second clarified request, they responded that apparently no record of my inquiries could be found.
“There has been a change in personnel since your previous request was completed on November 6, 2018,” the response said.
It has now been almost three months since I made it clear what I was seeking about the bias response hotline, and I have heard not a single word.
More recently, while working on a story about the apparent punishment of OU College of Law assistant dean Brian McCall for his religious views, I asked Open Records for any information concerning settlements made between the university and faculty members during the current calendar year. McCall has reached a settlement but details were precluded from public knowledge by the terms of that court action.
To date, Open Records has not responded with any usable information.
Then-OU law dean (now interim OU president) Joseph Harroz had announced that McCall had “resigned” from his administrative positions, but sources with knowledge of the case indicated that he had been forced out. So on September 10, I amended my request to include any letter of resignation by McCall, on the theory that it was likely in the public interest to know if the interim president of our largest university was lying about actions he had or had not taken to punish a man for his religious beliefs.
It would seem that either a resignation letter exists or it does not and that it would take the Open Records Office about 45 minutes to determine that and respond with a copy if it does or the fact of its non-existence. Yet six weeks later we continue to await any emanations from the black hole.
And if that’s not bad enough, OCPA also has two more extremely important requests that have disappeared into the black hole.
OCPA is not alone. Others have had the same experience. Indeed, the OU board of regents was given the 2019 “Black Hole Award” by the group FOI Oklahoma.
Most recently, OCPA wondered how much OU was going to pay its newly appointed “vice president of diversity and inclusion.” As the diversity regime grows (OU’s new diversity czar will have oversight of more than 40 diversity officers) and the attendant insanity continues (OU just made its campus awards gender-neutral after a “nonbinary” student complained), it seems reasonable that taxpayers should be told much this new vice president is being paid.
And yet when I emailed the public affairs office I received this response:
“Please submit your request for information to Open Records."
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.