It’s Sunshine Week.
In Alaska, most people’s first guess would be that Sunshine Week has something to do with emerging from a long, dark winter. Maybe it’s to celebrate the impending season of spring. Maybe it’s about spreading awareness of the seasonal depression that many people struggle with. Actually, it’s none of the above.
Let us spread some light on the issue.
Sunshine Week is about freedom of information and about encouraging open-government practice. In our post-9/11 nation, there is a growing concern about the amount of information that the federal government is keeping quiet under the guise of “security.”
Beginning March 13 with Sunshine Sunday,” media outlets across the country will be running feature stories, editorials, cartoons, broadcasts and opinion pieces about freedom of information and open government, and their vital role in a healthy democracy.
These issues directly impact the media, which have a crucial function in bringing relevant information to the general public and allowing them to make the informed decisions they should be making as responsible citizens.
But freedom of information and open government practices are not just issues that concern the federal government.
Alaska has its own FOI laws. And the University of Alaska, as a public, state-funded institution is responsible for adhering to those laws.
Even as a student newspaper, the Northern Light is directly affected by the information it has access to. And so are you.
The Northern Light sometimes faces an administration unwilling to be open and honest. When we ran an article about the Chancellor’s installation, we asked for a copy of the budget. After several phone calls, we finally received a statement from University Advancement. But it wasn’t a budget. A month later we are still waiting.
In our last conversation with the Chancellor’s office, we were told a copy of the budget would be forthcoming. When asked for at least an estimated cost of the ceremony, the response was evasive.
“I don’t want to assign a dollar figure to an event that is priceless and invaluable to UAA,” Vice Chancellor of University Relations Megan Sumner told the Northern Light. “We thought it was a fine academic ceremony, while not being ostentatious.”
We need to wonder why the administration is dragging their feet. And you should be wondering, too. Is it because they have a bad bookkeeper and aren’t really sure how much was spent? Is it because they paid an embarrassing amount of money on stupid paper hats and bad cookies? After seeing all the stacks of unworn party mortarboards and tasted the cookies, rumored to be three bucks a pop, we can’t help but wonder if they are embarrassed to release the budget.
Or is it because they think it is none of our business? Privacy matters are one of the gray areas when it comes to freedom of information issues.
When a suicide occurred in campus housing last semester, the Northern Light thought it was important to address what had happened. In contacting University Advancement, we immediately faced probing questions about why we wanted the information and what we would do with. Whether withholding the information was for respect of privacy or simply because they were afraid of the tarnished image it would give UAA, in retrospect we appreciate being held accountable for our actions and being forced to consider why we really were covering the story.
And we decided that we were covering the story because it is important that people know what is going on and it is equally important that things don’t just get swept under the rug.
Whether the story is good or bad, or even tragic, UAA’s administration must be held accountable, just as we were held accountable.
This is not to say that the Northern Light always faces obstacles when seeking information.
When the story broke last year that a prominent UAA student had been charged for sexual assault, access to court records was crucial. Our reporter went to the courthouse and was able to get the information she needed to build an accurate and complete story.
The point is, in our quest to bring precise, thorough and thoughtful information to the UAA community, there needs to be some give and take. The Northern Light understands that the administration at UAA want to know that information is not being abused. But, at the same time, students need to know that positions of power are not being abused.
In the end, government, or in our case, administration, will serve itself better when it is willing to be open and honest about what is really going on, not only about the serious issues, like assaults on campus, but also about the little things like the budget for the Chancellor’s installation
There is no reason why the Northern Light should not have received its requested copy of that budget. We are concerned about why and you should be too. Whether there is anything dubious going on or not, the only question that comes to our mind is what are they hiding?
The Northern Light wants to know. And with sunshine Week as an effective reminder of the access we are supposed to have to this information, we plan to find out.