We deserve the Right to Know

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We deserve the Right to Know

Terry Tan / Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan / Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan / Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan / Staff Illustrator

By Alyssa Lieberman / Columnist

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Pitt students pay the highest in-state tuition for a four-year public university in the nation, yet we cannot hold our school accountable for how it spends our money.

The Pennsylvania state legislature can possibly change that this fall, as it will review the state Right-to-Know Law Statute when it is back in session. The newly proposed amendments to the Right-to-Know legislation would force Pitt and other state-related schools to create open databases that include searchable and downloadable data on the university’s expenditure, budget and revenue. The proposal comes as a result of a number of court rulings, agency decisions, and open records office appeals that have generated fears of increasing limits on the information that people can obtain among open records advocates.

Currently, Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, which passed in 2009, allows state-related institutions, like Pitt, to not disclose financial records. Though the law requires financial transparency from state-affiliated institutions, or institutions that are a commonwealth of the state, it demands minimal transparency from state-related institutions like Pitt, Temple University, Penn State and Lincoln University, which receive an annual appropriation.

Essentially, state funding makes up a smaller percentage of state-related institutions’ budgets, which are technically part of a public-private hybrid that allows them to function separately from other public universities.

According to Paul Supowitz, the vice chancellor for community and governmental relations at Pitt, Pitt supports the expansion of the legislation. He states,  “Pitt believes strongly that the University should be accountable for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

However, when asked if Pitt would implement these changes regardless of whether or not the legislation passes, Supowitz determined, “I can’t say that, but we will make every effort to make sure that information is as accessible as it can be.”

If Pitt believes that it’s important to make information more accessible, it should institute the changes associated with newly proposed Right-to-Know Law amendments, regardless of whether or not the actual legislation passes in the state legislature.

The new Right-to-Know legislation is essential to Pitt students, as they deserve to know how the University spends their money. It affects a variety of campus issues — from the discrepancy between departmental funding to the wage gap between adjunct and full-time professors.

The 2009 Right-to-Know legislation only requires Pitt to disclose the salaries of officers and directors of the University, the highest 25 salaries paid to the institution’s employees and the information required for the Internal Revenue Service “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax” filing.

The lack of legal mandate on Pitt’s fiscal transparency allows the University to keep both students and faculty in the dark. When Pitt instituted a 2 percent budget cut across all departments in 2011 to offset a $40 million budget cut because of a decrease in state funding, the University was slow to reveal when the cut would take place or inform certain academic departments of the measure, according to a 2011 Pitt News article.

Pitt’s tuition increased by 2.5 percent for the 2015-2016 academic school year, preserving its status as the  most expensive four-year public university in the country. While this is Pitt’s lowest tuition increase in the past 40 years, it goes against Gov. Tom Wolf’s call in March for all in-state universities to freeze tuition costs for students as a part of his budget proposal.

While the price of Pitt tuition continues to escalate, it is unclear what this money is going toward.

With a lack of transparency comes a lack of accountability. When the law allows administration to make huge decisions behind closed doors, students suffer.

For example, the law allows Pitt to  not disclose decisions on its endowment, which ranks 26th out of 835 university endowments at $2.62 billion last January, from students. While Pitt’s policy only mandates that it spend 4.25 percent of its endowment every fiscal year, that translates to $111,350,000 entering the economy on Pitt’s behalf in 2015 alone. Yet, students do not know how Pitt invests this money, so while they can hope that they attend a University that makes ethical investments, Pitt students cannot be certain. At the moment, any request for information on Pitt’s endowment and its investments has to go through Pitt administration.

With greater transparency, Pitt would become more democratic. While students would not have direct input on financial decisions, the changes proposed in the legislation would empower them to monitor and react to University decisions.

According to Supowitz, the proposed legislation would broaden students’ accessibility to Pitt’s financial records.

“It provides a robust picture of the operations of the University,” Supowitz said.

Other schools have benefited from similar legislation.

In September 2012, Ohio State University students used the state’s Ohio Open Records Law — which has been in place since 1963 and includes all universities, even those that are for-profit private colleges — to force their university to release financial records on the expenses of their president, E. Gordon Gee. The records revealed that his expenses required an immense budget of $7.7 million, of which $64,000 was infamously allocated for Gee’s bowtie obsession since 2007. These expenses were independent of Gee’s yearly salary and compensation. The Ohio State transparency legislation allowed students to hold their university accountable for its actions.

Students’ power at universities is clearly tied to state transparency legislation.

While Ohio’s strong transparency legislation has pushed Ohio State University to publish its contract extension with Nike on its website and release specifics of the contract two hours after a student group’s request, students at Penn State faced significantly more difficulty in obtaining information on their school’s Nike contract. Despite a strong student push, Penn State has not disclosed the details of its Nike contract as the current Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law exempts Penn State from this responsibility. When schools are not obligated to disclose the details of their lucrative business ties, they often opt not to.

As college students, every dollar matters, and we deserve to see just where that dollar ended up.

Alyssa primarily writes on social justice and political issues for The Pitt News.

Write to her at aal43@pitt.edu

Editor’s Note: In an article published 9/16/15, The Pitt News wrote that Pennsylvania’s current Right to Know Law, passed in 2009, allows state-related institutions, like Pitt, to not disclose financial records. However, this overlooks the fact that Pitt does, indeed, disclose certain financial records. Requirements of Pennsylvania law, outside of the Right-to-Know Law, include legislation like the PA School Code and Pitt’s annual appropriation bill that have, for many years, mandated that Pitt disclose  information including how Commonwealth funds are spent, as well as extensive information relating to the makeup of the student body, the numbers, workloads and salaries of faculty members and staff, and much more. Pitt adheres to this legislation and discloses this financial information accordingly. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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