Staff Editorial: GW’s information lockdown presents disturbing trend, limits progress

The Hatchet’s editorial board loves to ask for transparency from the University.

We’d appreciate more details about what happens at Board of Trustees meetings. When GW’s police force wanted to expand its jurisdiction off campus, we asked that the department make its crime records public. We wanted transparency when the University rebranded itself, after the now-infamous U.S. News & World Report rankings scandal and, most recently, we called for it when GW’s plan for disciplining groups seemed lackluster.

These are not unreasonable requests. And yet, year after year, we remain frustrated with a lack of communication from the powers that be. (Want regular proof that GW is tight-lipped? Check the top of the opinions page in print to see what the University wouldn’t talk about that week. We haven’t left it blank yet this volume.)

Lately, we’ve seen another version of this trend: On numerous occasions, GW has decided to cut off the flow of information when circumstances took a turn for the worse. While this is an understandable reaction, it is hurting student trust more than maintaining an image, and it reduces everyone’s ability to find joint solutions.

For example, last week, University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt said rather than release complete numbers from the Eco-challenge, GW’s signature sustainability competition, the University will only name this year’s top five most successful halls. Hiatt declined to say if that decision was because most halls last year overwhelmingly increased their energy and water consumption.

That seems like a petty example, but alongside other recent stories, one starts to notice a concerning pattern. Not only did the University decide to stop releasing donation numbers for the Science and Engineering Hall last semester – after which we found out fundraising had plummeted – but in recent years, it also stopped listing the number of campus thefts in its annual crime report following an uptick.

It’s understandable that the University has no interest in publicizing bad news. But attempts to constantly control our school’s image shouldn’t get out of hand. Right now, the University is withholding pieces of innocuous information, and that’s unnecessary. That’s probably to avoid a potential public relations headache, but it’s ridiculous to think that a headache could be so terribly painful.

On the contrary, it’s useful for students to have information about issues like sustainability and crime. An increase in campus theft isn’t likely to cause students to leave GW en masse, or deplete future application numbers. Plenty of schools have high crime rates and still maintain good reputations: UCLA, UC Berkeley and Duke University, for example, took the top three spots on Business Insider’s list of the most dangerous colleges in 2012.

Making less-than-flattering information accessible might actually be beneficial to GW in the long run: It would provide an opportunity to turn community-wide problems into partnerships between the University and its students and faculty.

For example, by telling students which dorms performed poorly in the Eco-challenge, GW could incentivize those residents to go green. And it could use complete theft numbers to encourage students to not leave their belongings unattended. These “problems” are a result of student action, or lack thereof, and it only makes sense that students should be called on to implement solutions.

As for professors, they had voiced concerns for years that the administration’s funding plan for the construction of SEH wasn’t going to work. Instead of taking that into account, though, the University barreled ahead, resulting in a legitimate public relations nightmare when officials came up short on fundraising and had to adjust their plans. Like students, professors can be helpful and contribute insight to help solve problems before it’s too late. Their voices shouldn’t be silenced because an institution is overly wary of bad press.

Instead of hiding the truth, GW should issue challenges with the hope that both students and professors rise to the occasion.

Transparency must extend to times of reaction
The idea that running a university will always go smoothly is hysterical. It’s a job so complicated that it’s unreasonable for anyone to expect perfection every minute of every day.

So when bad things happen, the University should not pretend like it can hide the cracks – especially when those flaws have already been exposed.

We don’t mean GW should send out a press release every time something goes poorly. That’s unreasonable to ask of any organization. But admitting when something has gone wrong or gotten out of control is an important part of being an open, reliable institution. When students start asking questions, we need to be given straight answers.

For instance, when the University announced that all students would be required to live on campus through their junior years, University President Steven Knapp told The Hatchet in an interview that the decision wasn’t motivated by financial concerns. Simply put, that’s absurd, and came off as an ill-advised dodge of a question.

And when asked why theft numbers would no longer be listed in the annual crime report, former UPD Chief Kevin Hay said, “We’re trying to make it more user-friendly, and we thought it was too long before.”

In both of these instances, the response from a high-ranking, publicly visible administrator was disconcerting at best and patronizing at worst.

If this were any other institution, we might be able to shrug off these instances. But this isn’t just a business. It’s our university, to which we’ve pledged four of our formative years, entrusted our educational development and promised our lifelong affiliation. We expect our relationship with this place to involve more than just a monetary transaction.

For that reason, it’s essential there’s some semblance of mutual trust and respect between GW and its students. It means an increased willingness to let us in – during the good times and the bad.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, sports editor Nora Princiotti, design editor Sophie McTear, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and senior designer Anna McGarrigle.

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