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Recent scandals at UNC-Chapel Hill boost requests for public records

CHAPEL HILL Public records requests to UNC-Chapel Hill have nearly quadrupled since 2008-09, growing to 354 requests last year that produced 40,000 pages of documents and emails, university officials said Friday.

The increased volume of requests has coincided with local and national interest in a series of scandals involving athletics and academics at UNC-CH.

The statistics were released Friday at a Faculty Council meeting by Joel Curran, UNC-CH’s Vice Chancellor of Communications and Public Affairs.

“It has been an incredible flow of requests coming in,” he said.

The university, as a publicly funded institution, must release records at the request of any citizen or media outlet. But earlier this month, UNC-CH was criticized for its response time to those queries. The attention came during Sunshine Week, an annual event that puts a spotlight on freedom-of-information laws.

In one recent test by University of Maryland journalism students and the Student Press Law Center, UNC-CH was the most unresponsive among dozens of public universities across the country. Last year, the students asked each university for the same 11 documents regarding the social media regulations for sports teams and athletic departments.

Five months after the students requested the records, UNC-CH had not produced them. The documents were released two days after the students published their report.

“Would you please address why UNC is so slow, according to this study?” Hassan Melehy, professor or romance languages, asked Curran at the faculty meeting.

Curran said the requests are generally filled as they are received, with priority given to North Carolina citizens and North Carolina media outlets. Because the students were from Maryland, he said, their request fell behind in the queue.

Some requests are simple to execute, he said, but others require detailed reviews to redact personnel information or data that falls under federal student privacy protections.

Curran said the university employs nine full-time equivalent employees to deal with record requests at an annual cost of $600,000. He said no other university in the UNC system has more than two employees dedicated to the task.

He said the university is working to speed up compliance with the law.

“We’re not pleased with that,” Curran said of the Maryland response. “I mean, we would much rather be able to fulfill everything as it comes in and try to push those through.”

John Robinson, who teaches journalism at UNC-CH and writes a blog on the media, chastised the university for its lack of response to the Maryland students. In a letter to Chancellor Carol Folt, published on his blog, Robinson urged the university to release the documents immediately.

“Ask the public relations professors in your own school how to restore trust and they will tell you that transparency is key,” Robinson wrote. “So far, the university has not been transparent. When you have people saying that you’re hiding things, you’re in trouble.”

On Friday, Folt said the Maryland study compared universities across states with different public records laws.

“We are really interested in trying to make that be something that we can do in a timely manner,” she said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559
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