Annu Subramanian: The high cost of silence

Media Credit: Annu Subramanian

A private university owes its students very little.

It is not bound by Freedom of Information Acts, it can decline to share revenue details, it even can refuse to say if a suspected rapist is living in its dorms, as long as the student did not attack someone on campus.

But a university should tell its community information about security patrols. It owes parents and students data about where tuition dollars are going. It owes the public its plans for aligning itself with federal sexual assault guidelines.

GW apparently doesn’t think so.

In the last five months, the University has withheld information about each of these topics.

Administrators or spokespersons have also declined to discuss, refused to answer questions about or otherwise address the following: How much a rebranding campaign costs, how traffic jams could affect fall move in, how Hurricane Irene would affect fall move in, what GW's immediate contingency plan for Irene was, why a pipe burst and what GW was doing to clean the water up, information about a pending lawsuit, a new role for a former dean, how that same dean decided to step down and why, which residence halls have seen rodent complaints, how many students submitted summer reading essays before and after the deadline was extended, what timelines exist for diversity initiatives, how the University will save costs by having employees telecommute, which floors in residence halls have bed bugs, where asbestos was found in administrator buildings, who posted erroneous signs in City Hall, what preparation plans existed for Sept. 11 security, what the cost of adding endowed faculty is, where the funding for a new master's program is coming from, why an alumni gift is not yet funding the senior class gift and whether a student who threatened another student with a knife is still living on campus.

And that's only since Aug. 25.

Clearly, The Hatchet often reports that a University spokesperson or administrator declined to comment on a topic. In those cases, ask yourself whether silence is the most reassuring end.

We live in an environment where the University doesn’t disclose some vital information – from police patrol levels to the cost of the dining overhaul. This shows that the University does not believe that collective knowledge is a necessary commodity for the community.

But here’s the thing, the University hires the men and women at the University Police Department who keep us safe. The University delegates the tuition dollars we spend to its own various endeavors.

For us students, GW is our whole world. It’s our food, our security, our home. Yet the University doesn’t legally need to provide us with most of the information behind those decisions.

But don’t you think it should anyway?

A university is not a corporation. It is apparent from the provisions the University provides and the high cost of attendance we pay that the system is a stark departure from anything even remotely business-like. The fact that the University hides behind the disclosure protections of a high-profile corporation is shocking; we, as tuition-paying consumers of the institution, should be privy to information about the product we pay for.

As I said, the University owes the community almost nothing. But that doesn’t mean the community should remain ignorant about the issues that concern it most. We are paying for these four years; knowledge about what we are getting ourselves into should be expected.

Where reporters and the public seek conversation and answers, the University focuses on filtering information and quotes through a few public personnel who choose what should be disclosed and what is better kept close to the chest.

Providing University information will open GW up to criticism. But declining to share information to avoid insult is a faulty solution to that problem. The community deserves knowledge that concerns it.

The University fundamentally works in its students’ best interests. Administrators and faculty ultimately come together to provide the student body with the best possible education.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t concerning that the institution withholds a great deal of information that could potentially confirm that.

Annu Subramanian, a junior majoring in journalism, is the Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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