Why Is UVa Hiding Its Campus Climate Survey Results?

… but you can’t see them! (Image credit: scwgl.org.uk)

by Walter Smith

Jim Bacon recently posted an article urging Governor-elect Youngkin to take full advantage of his higher-ed Board of Visitors appointments if he wishes to remain true to the education reform momentum that played a big part in his election. Bacon’s bits (pun intentional!) on the Boards as political plums with a go-along-to-get-along chumminess seemed dead on to me. In truth, academia is a different world. A far different world.

I came out of the corporate world. I worked as counsel in an NYSE company and a private equity company for large insurance brokerages. Governance in the academic world is something I intend to address in a complete, and fair, manner later, after gathering a great deal more info. In the meantime, permit me to share one example of how governance works — or doesn’t work — in academia.

After the 2017 Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia took many actions in response. One result was the Racial Equity Task Force report. Another was the formation of the Deans Working Group, headed by Risa Goluboff of the law school. Goluboff made four proposals to the Board in March of 2018, all of which were approved.*

One of those approvals allocated $80,000 to a “university-wide campus climate survey.” This survey, paid for with public money, has never been released. Why? Given the BoV approval, does it not belong to the public?

UVa’s own institutional research experts conducted this survey. You can see many other surveys published here, including the highly publicized 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. Conspicuously, one cannot find the deans’ BOV-approved survey.

I wondered why this report was different. Could the findings have been inconvenient for the administration’s social-justice agenda? I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the survey. UVa withheld it on the grounds that it was exempt “scholarly research.”

I found the exception to be transparently absurd. The survey was conducted for the purpose of informing policy decisions by administrators and the Board of Visitors, not for scholarly research. So, I filed suit in Henrico County General District Court.

I lost the case. I won’t bore you with the arcane knowledge I have acquired about “Institutional Research Boards” and “human subject research,” but I can tell you this: a FOIA plaintiff is at a distinct disadvantage in district court, arguing for documents he has never seen against people who specialize in this area of the law and have intimate familiarity with institutional processes. How many inquiries for documents at UVa, or any other public body, are frustrated by the claiming of an exception, or by an inflated cost estimate, and the expense and uncertainty of filing a lawsuit?

In any event, I plan to file a new suit in the Circuit Court. I have been told by academics that this work, while performed by scholars, is not “scholarly research.” It was conducted for administrative purposes, and is therefore subject to public disclosure. If you examine almost any large school, you will find somewhere on its website these types of surveys, readily and publicly available.

In an argument made in the lower court, UVa’s counsel said the survey solicited more than 30,000 people and that about 6,000 responded, a statistically significant sample. The Board ordered the survey. Did the Board see a draft? Did the Board ever get an update on the study? Who made the decision to kill it? Did the Board approve that decision? Does the Board even know it wasn’t finished? Does the Board know there has been, and will be, litigation over this survey it approved?

How exactly does this unwillingness to produce a study paid for with public funds and approved by the Board square with the Board’s, and UVa’s, “unequivocal” support of free expression and free inquiry? Is the Board, or the administration, afraid to “…follow truth wherever it may lead?”

It seems that way to me.

* Please read pages 10627-10629, and see Attachment 2, page 62 of the PDF, which details over $120 million of expense as an answer to Unite the Right, before publication of the Racial Equity Task Force report.)

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9 responses to “Why Is UVa Hiding Its Campus Climate Survey Results?”

  1. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Cuccinelli Lives!

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I encourage you to go for it. There could be legitimate reasons for exempting documents related scholarly research, even if paid for with public funds (grants), but this does not fit into that category. It was to be a document to aid in adopting policies in the future.

    It is not clear that this survey was paid for by taxpayers. The minutes imply that funding for the the proposals was to come from the Strategic Investment Fund. But, that does not matter; it is still public money.

    Before filing suit in circuit court, you may want to consult with the Freedom of Information Advisory Council. I recently got push-back from an agency over a FOIA request for a document that clearly was not exempt. After I got an opinion from the Advisory Council supporting my position, the agency backed down and I feel that the Advisory Council opinion was he deciding factor. If you can present a favorable opinion from the Council to the court, that will bring weight to you case.

  3. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Thank you DHS for the comments, and, yes, I recently discovered the advisory council and its searchable opinions.
    Now to clarify something for all you literalists…
    “Climate survey” is an academic term of art for what is happening on campus, or even on “Grounds!” It is NOT about “climate change” or “anthropogenic global warming.”
    Ironically, the case directly on this issue involved Michael Mann. His papers were protected and while I doubt his scholarship, I do not doubt that what was withheld was “scholarly research” under FOIA. This survey is quite different and there are a few points of distinction. First, and most obvious, is the administrative use. Second, and now getting into academic arcania, is the survey is not scholarly research, which is intended to produce “generalizable knowledge.” Finally, the lack of publication requirement is too easy of a loophole – UVA or any institution just “chooses” not to publish something and voila! Exempt! Clearly, the intent is that the research in progress should remain under wraps until published or patented or copyrighted, but not something as broad as UVA contends. Also, the scholarly research as UVA has contended is also a potential enormous loophole – UVA is full of scholars: scholars did this work: therefore, scholarly research.
    As to advisory council or Circuit Court…I bet advisory council would agree with me. In fact, I think they would agree on the THREE times UVA has claimed working papers on me. But making UVA say something wrong in Court has value, too. I’d prefer UVA quit screwing with me and just produce the stuff, even if it may not jibe with the image it wishes to project. And I would like to see some kind of reformation to FOIA where there is some kind of penalty for claiming exemptions that aren’t valid. The “dealer” holds all the cards, has seen the cards, and knows the rulebook inside and out. It reminds me of the card game TEGWAR in Bang the Drum Slowly… (a very good movie)

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Skies are sunny again…
      “Jurors found the main organizers of the deadly right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 liable under state law, awarding more than $25 million in damages, but deadlocked on federal conspiracy charges.”

      1. walter smith Avatar
        walter smith

        Um…what does that have to do with the FOIA request?
        I haven’t followed the trial. I suspect this will go on for a long while, and, like most Leftist things, show trials are a bad idea. The moral to this lawsuit would be go riot whenever people you disagree with speak, and hold the speakers liable. Might want to think it through…
        Now, could you quit imitating Larry making inane points and try one on point?

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          First word, Baby… FREEDOM. Why should I discuss only what you want?

  4. The climate at UVA is pretty much the same as the climate in Charlottesville and most of the rest of Virginia.

    I think the term is “four-season, humid sub-tropical”.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    The FOIA law in Virginia is a Swiss cheese of exemptions, no matter your politics. If they WANT to give it to you, they will. If they don’t , you’re probably gonna chase your tail from here to Sunday, and I guess I would have thought a lawyer type would know that.

    Now, if you are a lawyer and have time on your hands, I suspect you can engage in a longer-running struggle with them to keep their legal team busy and maybe even win some.

    FOIA is one of those things that sought to tell Virginian’s that they have a “right” to know but the guys that wrote it – also very obligingly put trap-doors in it so from their point of view – it was a “win-win” but citizens seem to not understand that cynicism…

    Oh.. And this probably qualifies as another “inane” comment, I suspect. We’ll see if Walter reads and responds to… 😉

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