The University has a habit of keeping information under lock and key, routinely declining to reveal budget breakdowns, crime and campus safety details and even documents that were once on the public record.
Of the last 22 issues, an alarming 19 opinions pages included a “What the University Won’t Talk About” feature, highlighting cases in which GW declined to comment – all in an effort to push back against the culture of secrecy that has marked University President Steven Knapp’s administration.
Each night before going to press, the opinions editors and editor in chief look through correspondences between reporters and administrators or staffers to determine what questions were left unanswered that issue. The unknown details range from crucial to simply bizarre.
GW has declined to discuss security changes, the number of pets found in residence halls, the number of FixIt requests and the names of the six dean candidate finalists – just to name a few since January.
A decline to comment isn’t a sign that the information requested does not exist, or that administrators do not know the answer. It means that information is being actively withheld from the public.
And this culture of secrecy is intolerable.
Muzzling information only leaves students to draw their own conclusions and assume the worst, which can have a negative effect on the University – especially at a time when GW has actively looked to polish its name through a rebranding and advertising campaign.
The University set a negative tone even as it tried to push its new brand by refusing to disclose the cost of the rebranding work, which was performed by outside firms. The secrecy prodded students to wonder just how much GW spent to buff up its image, instead of embracing its message.
The most blatant example of this lack of transparency came at the University’s most vulnerable moment.
Even after administrators came forward to disclose they had inflated admissions data for a decade, they still kept other information sealed. Officials claimed they did not document the audit of admissions data completed by an outside firm, prompting questions about whether or not the number manipulation was malicious. The University also kept its top admissions official out of the public eye, prohibiting her from answering questions about the mistakes her office made for at least 10 years.
And the information lockdown reached a new level when earlier this semester, the University refused to release its 990 tax forms from the last decade – records that were once public. A spokeswoman said the University is only required to make three years of those records public. Accordingly, University leaders have decided to release only what is required by law, and absolutely no more, even if this data might be instrumental in improving campus life.
If the University commits itself to disclosing the bare minimum amount of information, it will quickly lose the public’s trust.
GW relies on flocks of people buying into its future. The University needs applicants, students, donors, alumni, faculty and employees to believe it is on the right track with its academics, research, campus safety and financial decisions. Without this trust in place, the University cannot continue to move forward.
By keeping the record books closed, the University might believe it shields itself from scrutiny. But this is misguided, and will only invite frustration and more questions. A policy of secrecy alienates people the University needs to help it grow.
The “What the University Won’t Talk About” box will remain on the top of the opinions page. And it will continue to have a place until this culture of covertness subsides. If that openness happens soon, GW can make a leap toward becoming an institution we trust.