Report: Big Ten schools used conference software to hide COVID-19 discussions from public

Tyler J. Davis
Detroit Free Press

Big Ten presidents are answering questions about transparency after a new report revealed an effort to conceal certain conversations about the novel coronavirus and the schools' reactions from the public view.

Emails from officials at public, taxpayer-funded universities and colleges can be released under Freedom of Information Act laws (Northwestern is a Big Ten school, but it is private). Knowing this, Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, and Rebecca Blank, chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, discussed how to communicate and handle messages without having them subject to public records laws, according toa story published Friday by the Washington Post. 

Many conversations about how the conference ran its football season were held on a third-party platform, which, universities have argued, makes them nonpublic records.

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Blank and Schlissel, as well as others representing several of the 14 Big Ten universities, used the conference's Nasdaq Boardvantage software — designed to facilitate meetings and collaboration — to discuss plans and share documents. Consequently, records requests to see the material shared on Boardvantage have been denied by multiple schools, the Post reports.

Dec 19, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana;  Big Ten football championship trophy

The Free Press has pending FOIA requests with Big Ten universities regarding emailed material and the virus. 

Schlissel, according to the Post story, asked others via email to share their campuses' experiences dealing with the coronavirus, to which Blank replied: “Mark and others — please note that anything that arrives in or is sent from my email can be requested as a public record. I know I’m not the only one for whom this is true.” 

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University of Nebraska chancellor Ronnie Green answered Schlissel's question but shared "that same concern" as Blank. A Nebraska spokesperson did not comment on the exchange to the Post. 

“The idea that government officials would intentionally use a technological platform, seemingly with the intent of evading public records laws, is both troubling and wrong on the law,” Adam Marshall, a senior staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Post.

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A University of Wisconsin spokesperson said Blank is "mindful of her responsibilities under Wisconsin's public records laws" but wanted "to move the conversation out of a long, reply-all email string and onto the Big Ten's secure collaboration platform."

Schlissel later messaged Blank, asking if deleting emails relieves FOIA obligations, "I share your concern of course." She replied it would be a violation of state law to permanently delete them. There was no evidence of deleted emails, according to the Post.

Schlissel responded: “that's really interesting and difficult. Thanks for explaining.”

Government agencies usually have retention and disposal guidelines for how long records must be kept. A University of Michigan spokesperson told the Post the school does not have a requirement to retain email for any specific period of time. At the University of Wisconsin, routine communication must be kept for at least six months.

“The suggestion (to delete emails) is incredibly troubling in and of itself,” Marshall said.

The Big Ten has been roundly criticized for its handling of the coronavirus. The conference announced it would not play football in the summer, then went with a delayed start; other major college football leagues had started games and implemented their testing protocols. A condensed schedule almost cost the Big Ten's best team, Ohio State, a chance to play for a national title — which would have been an even darker black eye for the conference. 

Officials have not offered many specifics through the changes, leaving taxpayers in those states with questions about decision-making they're funding. 

"It’s of the upmost public interest, and that makes it all the more shocking,” Marshall said. “ … I find the communications that we’ve been talking about here to be so upsetting, both as a lawyer but also as someone who cares about a functioning democracy. And I think in times of public health crises, like COVID, that’s even more true than it is in our day-to-day democracy.”

Follow the Free Press on Facebook and Twitter for more news. Tyler Davis can be contacted at tjdavis@freepress.com or on Twitter @TDavisFreep.

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