Mizzou Gets an F on Transparency
As first appearing in the Columbia Daily Tribune:
It seems absurd that a public university would treat the content of its courses as a closely held secret. Unfortunately, the University of Missouri is doing just this by shielding course syllabi from state transparency laws.
In 2012, the University of Missouri refused to release course syllabi, which are outlines of the content included in a course of study, to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Under Missouri’s Open Meetings and Records Law (a.k.a. the Sunshine Law), most government records are supposed to be accessible to the public. However, Mizzou took the position that course syllabi are exempt from the Sunshine Law because they are copyrighted.
Unfortunately for open-government advocates, the courts refused to require the University of Missouri to disclose these records. Now it appears that absent a policy change members of the public might be left in the dark about this important aspect of public higher education. Worse still, government agencies that wish to avoid public scrutiny may try to use copyright as an excuse not to produce public documents. The University of Missouri’s refusal to operate in a forthright and transparent manner stands in stark contrast to my experience as a student at the school.
In my undergrad work at Mizzou, I felt like I was a part of an enlightened institution that valued free inquiry, rationality, and open society. I listened to impromptu debates at Speakers Circle, socialized with journalism students excited about making their first sunshine request, and heard lectures from professors on the nature of civil society. My alma mater seemed so committed to the idea of open society that I’m almost surprised that syllabi aren’t already posted online for anyone to see.
Of course, I’m not really surprised. If the University of Missouri allowed the public to see course syllabi, it would invite public scrutiny. In all likelihood, there’s some professor teaching a class at Mizzou this semester that’s full of substandard or inappropriate content. Rather than deal with the inevitable criticism that a transparent institution would invite, the people in charge have decided to shield the university from the state’s transparency laws.
Certainly some of the criticisms of course content would be unwarranted. But does that even matter? A conviction I picked up at Mizzou was that the solution to some bad speech is more good speech and that in an open society the truth will win out in the marketplace of ideas. Public scrutiny is no enemy of free inquiry. On the contrary, I’d argue that scrutiny can help foster it.
The University of Missouri is a government institution. Its operations are paid for in part with tax revenues, and it serves the public. Mizzou should not let fear of criticism and a legal loophole to state transparency laws prevent it from being just as committed to the values of an open society as I remember it being.
John Wright is a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute.