With sensitive topics circling through University Senate committee meetings, some discussions are shuttered to the public and meeting minutes go unpublished for months.
These committees, composed of University of Minnesota faculty and staff, discuss campus issues and make policy recommendations to the University Senate. Although these meetings are not legally required to remain open, unlike a Board of Regents meeting, some campus members are concerned by a lack of transparency.
The Faculty Consultative Committee (FCC) closed parts of three meetings this academic year and the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee (AF&T) closed parts of two meetings last semester.
Multiple AF&T members said if a meeting was not closed, often the person who came to speak would not talk candidly — if at all.
“That was the only way we were going to access the information,” said Jessica Larson, AF&T chair. “We did not offer [closing the meeting]. It was proposed to us in both cases … the individuals would only speak if it was a closed meeting, so they have their reasons.”
Larson said a meeting last November was closed at University President Eric Kaler’s request. At this meeting, the committee discussed a controversial reproductive health fellowship with the president and Medical School Dean Jakub Tolar, according to meeting minutes. The meeting was reopened when the administrators left the meeting, and the committee continued to discuss the fellowship.
“A university body doesn’t have privacy interests,” said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law. “If they’re going to close a meeting and keep people out, let’s call it what it is — it’s a secret meeting.”
Kirtley said it is best to operate in the sunshine and give the public the opportunity to see discussions that lead to decisions of public interest.
“Even if you agree with the policy, who debated it? What were the points? What got argued down? What got accepted? That’s the process,” Kirtley said. “I think it’s something that the public has an interest in knowing.”
A March 28 FCC meeting was closed while discussing the next steps of renaming campus buildings. FCC Chair Amy Pittenger said the meeting was closed so faculty could speak freely.
The FCC previously discussed renaming in two other meetings without shutting its doors, including one discussion with Kaler, according to meeting minutes.
Jerry Cohen, AF&T member, said they try to avoid closing meetings whenever possible, but the committee can’t compel administration to talk with them.
“I wanted to hear what the administration’s policy had been and whether it was reasonable or not,” Cohen said, referring to the reproductive health fellowship. “The only way I was going to get that answer was if I agreed to close the meeting.”
Cohen said it is appropriate to close a meeting before presenting discussions to the Board of Regents or legislature.
“If it gets back to them that you’re doing this, that could poison the water before you even got sanity on the table,” Cohen said.
He said when a meeting is closed, the reason should be clear. When a meeting is closed, typically the reason is listed in the minutes and the discussion is not.
Minutes often take well over a month to be posted after the meetings conclude. An FCC meeting from last September did not have minutes posted for four months. Senate Consultative Committee minutes have not been posted in 19 months, the latest for a meeting occurring over two years ago.
“If the goal is transparency and accountability, at the very least, you ought to be posting your minutes promptly,” Kirtley said.
While many cite the ability to speak freely as a rationale for closed meetings, Kirtley said it cuts both ways.
“If you're in a meeting that's closed, there can be a lot of peer pressure or kind of a sense that the majority is going to rule no matter what and sometimes minority voices don’t feel comfortable speaking out,” Kirtley said. “It can actually stifle the very open debate they claim they’re trying to advance.”
Niamh Coomey contributed to this report.