After hearing about the possibility of Cal Poly switching to semesters, we expected a 12-round fight filled with cuts, bruises and scars showing the dirty details of the debate to everyone on campus.
All we were allowed to see was the knockout punch.
Though plenty of people came to the Semester Review Task Force open forums and workshops, nowhere in those meetings did we see decision makers discussing what they would write in their recommendation to the university president. Instead, we saw more than a few angry students, faculty and staff beating up on the process and forcing President Jeffrey Armstrong and others to defend it.
We also saw a well-manicured, previously private 681-page report appear once students left for winter break. We didn’t see, or even know about, at least five meetings when the task force went about deciding what to do with its charge and how to write the report.
But that wasn’t for lack of trying. Once Mustang Daily learned about these meetings, we asked to come to the final one on Dec. 6 where members were expected to debate and write the final recommendation to Armstrong. There, we were told, a final decision would be reached.
After going back and forth with task force chair Rachel Fernflores and university legal counsel Carlos Cordova on the finer points of California’s open-meeting laws, we were told the meeting was closed. But lawyers at the Student Press Law Center and the California Newspaper Publishers Association were not convinced, so we sent another request to attend the meeting.
Then the task force changed its strategy because of its tight deadline, Fernflores said. Rather than discuss issues in a meeting, members worked privately on individual parts of the report and came together to approve it after students left campus. That final meeting appeared to be ceremonial — though it was open to the public, the task force used it only to approve its previously written recommendation to stay on quarters. There was no debate, no discussion, just a unanimous decision.
We also asked for one part of the report to be released early: the analysis of 7,100 responses to a survey asking if people were in favor of semesters. In our reporting, we found almost everyone we talked to was curious about the results, and we wanted to let the campus know how it voted. Fernflores denied that request, but said we could see the results once they published the final report.
We asked again, this time citing the California Public Records Act. The task force appeared to soften its stance, and Fernflores said she would need to review the results to make sure it complied with student privacy laws. A third request explicitly asking for the analysis without student names or identification numbers went unanswered. We eventually received the survey data along with the rest of the report.
The task force’s reluctance to keep students abreast of its activities was, in their view, understandable. But that’s not a formula for transparency, a word the university often used to describe the task force’s process.
California encourages a transparent government through laws about public records and open meetings — laws that also apply to public universities. But those laws are not enough. If leaders on campus dance around them by citing debatable exemptions and trying to find loopholes in the rules, it’s as if the laws don’t exist at all.
In issues like this, Armstrong and the rest of Cal Poly need to think about whether the convenience of working in private outweighs the benefits of allowing students, faculty and staff to see the reasoning behind important decisions.
When asked about what he thought of the campus’ reaction to his Semester Review Task Force, Armstrong said Cal Poly will come together to improve at discussing more “hard questions” he plans to ask. What we want to know is if those difficult questions — some with multi-million dollar implications — will be answered in clear view of the school or in more private meetings.
We’ll let you know when that information becomes public.