Sunshine Week: The Eagle reports on Texas universities and open records

By Allen Reed
The Bryan-College Station Eagle
Originally published March 18, 2014

It’s Sunshine Week, so let’s look at how many information requests were sent to the top universities in Texas last year and how many of those are referred to the Texas attorney general.

In February, The Eagle asked the six university systems and their flagship institutions for “the number of information requests received during the 2013 calendar year and the number of those requests for which an attorney general ruling was sought.”

Last year, for example, Texas A&M received about 890 open records requests and sent about 10 percent to the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott, according to the data it provided.

The Eagle can only take credit for a small portion of those, but it’s interesting to look at how many requests were processed and how many were referred.

It’s important to note that this does not reflect the amount of public information provided by the taxpayer-funded universities and systems to the citizenry. This is just an account of the formal requests processed by the institution. They can and do release info sometimes without getting the lawyers involved.

The process, especially when requests sent to the AG, can create a roadblock or delay getting information to journalists and the general public.

It’s common practice for larger governmental entities to require the requests. For example, The Eagle had to file requests to get a copy of A&M’s outsourcing contract with Compass Group USA, a December email from Gov. Rick Perry to regent Phil Adams regarding the selection of A&M’s interim president and the transition agreement for former president R. Bowen Loftin that included $850,000 cash up front extracted from the public coffers. Examples of university information that isn’t public includes students’ personal information and employees’ Social Security numbers.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative all about the public’s right to know what its government is doing and why. Participants include news media, civic groups, nonprofit organizations and others who care about the public’s right to know what its government is doing.

Austin attorney Jim Hemphill, who volunteers for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said it’s important to keep track of how universities process the requests but that it’s hard to draw conclusions from a small sample of data. He said there are many reasons university lawyers forward the requests to the attorney general such as needing help to interpret the law.

“The reality is that the legislature has created a long list and an ever-increasing list of information that is not subject to the public information act,” Hemphill said. “In some cases the governmental entity has an obligation to not release that information.”

Still, some of the open record requests don’t need to get delayed while the office of the attorney general studies them, he said.

“Is it a wasteful step? I think sometimes it is,” Hemphill said. “I’ve personally seen circumstances in which attorney general opinions have been requested when in my judgment the information requested was absolutely subject to the public information act and should have been released without the request. That’s obviously anecdotal.”

The fundamental premise behind open records laws is that government functions best when people know what it’s doing, he said.

“I think ideally the system functions best when the folks in government who are responding to public information act keep that fundamental premise in mind and that the presumption as the law states should always be that government information is open to the public,” Hemphill said. “There should not be a presumption to the contrary.”

Here are the university systems ranked by the number of requests received in 2013:

Note: Two of the systems (TTU/UH) couldn’t separate requests to the system offices from that of the flagship university so I combined them all.

The University of Texas System and UT: 1,528

The Texas A&M University System and A&M: 1,014

The University of North Texas System and UNT: 338

The University of Houston System and UH: 319

The Texas Tech System and TTU: 252

The Texas State University System and TXST: 221

Here is a ranking of the system or flagship based on the percentage of open records requests sent to the AG:

University of Texas System: 177 received, 80 to AG (45.2 percent)

Texas State University System: 17 received, 5 to AG (29.41 percent)

University of North Texas System: 182 received, 44 to AG (24.18 percent)

University of North Texas: 156 received, 36 to AG (23.08 percent)

Texas A&M University: 888 received, 87 to AG (9.8 percent)

University of Texas: 1351 received, 97 to AG (7.2 percent)

Texas A&M System: 126 received, 8 to AG (6.35 percent)

Texas State University: 204 received, 12 to AG (5.88 percent)

Texas Tech University System and TTU combined: 252 received, 13 to AG (5.16 percent)

University of Houston System and UH combined: 319 received, 11 to AG (3.45 percent)

I also thought it would be neat to see how long it took each institution to respond to the request. I sent the requests off on Feb. 10 a little before 3 p.m. The maximum time allowed to process such requests according to Texas law is 10 business days, but of course there are exceptions. The UT System notified me within 10 days but needed extra clarification.

Here are the university systems and flagships ranked by how quickly they processed the information requests sent on Feb. 10:

Texas A&M University System: Feb. 10 at 4:33 p.m.

Texas State University System: Feb. 11 in the morning (they phoned it in)

Texas State University: Feb. 12 at 4:06 p.m.

University of Houston System and UH combined: Feb. 13 at 12:50 p.m.

Texas Tech University System and TTU combined: Feb. 18 at 3:53 p.m.

University of Texas: Feb. 25 at 2:43 p.m.

University of North Texas: Feb. 26 at 4:23 p.m.

University of North Texas System: Feb. 26 at 4:23 p.m.

University of Texas System: March 4 at 4:56 p.m.