The University of Oklahoma is standing at a crossroads right now, and seems to be leaning toward the path that will continue to erode public faith in the institution.
In the past two weeks, local journalism nonprofit NonDoc has reported that it is suing OU for records the university has refused to release for two years now. The records in question are two reports from law firm Jones Day that detail the findings of investigations into university misreporting and alleged sexual misconduct by former OU President David Boren.
Last Tuesday, NonDoc revealed OU’s response to its suit: A condescending letter explaining why OU refuses to release the reports, and noting that sharing the documents “appears only to serve the public’s curiosity — not its interest.”
As someone who has dealt with the OU open records system in a journalistic capacity for several years now, I’m well aware of the secrecy with which OU conducts its operations.
The reasons given to NonDoc for withholding the documents — that the investigations involved talking to certain people who trusted the university with confidentiality, and that that trust must be maintained — sounds remarkably similar to the reasoning OU’s regents gave when they conducted a secretive presidential search in spring 2018.
At the time, the regents and university said they couldn’t tell the community what candidates they were looking at or bring them to campus for meet and greets — despite the fact that universities regularly host this kind of event for all kinds of open positions — because candidates had current jobs elsewhere, and needed the privacy of a secretive process. The president they picked stayed at OU one year.
In both cases, the excuse for secrecy serves to protect the powerful instead of serving the interests of the university community. It’s unlikely the university is trying to protect victims by withholding these reports — several accusers of Boren or his associate Tripp Hall have spoken up in the media or in court. So who are they protecting?
Not the public’s interest. OU has spent two years sitting on reports that would show us all the bigger picture of two investigations they paid more than $1 million in public money for.
One of these investigations is more straightforward — thanks to reporting from The OU Daily, we know many of the details of the intentional misreporting that went on in OU’s Development Office under Boren and Hall and that led to OU getting removed from U.S. News and World Reports’ rankings the following year.
But we have no idea the full extent or the university’s knowledge of the sexual misconduct allegations against Boren. We, again, have the records of those who have spoken up publicly, but have no indication what Jones Day may have discovered about the university’s former president or administration. The only piece of this investigation we know is that Jones Day found testimony from Boren accuser Jess Eddy “generally credible,” which leads to more questions for OU than answers.
And the allegations here are serious; they involve a man who was once one of the most powerful in the state, who oversaw Oklahoma’s flagship university for nearly a quarter century, who once represented us as governor, then senator. Boren’s former constituents, faculty, staff and students all deserve to know what went on at OU and what the university knows about it.
For many students, my generation included, Boren was once a trustworthy figure — he taught some of us in his government class section and was a beloved university figurehead for years. Our investment is deeply personal. Potential OU students deserve to understand what kind of university they’re walking into.
To imply that these records are not of public interest is to erase so much of the public’s relationship with the university. The public desire to understand what went on at OU is not lurid curiosity — it’s a continuation of the years of dedication and support many of us have given to this university. How can an institution thrive if not in the sunlight? How will OU move forward if one of its darkest moments is never brought to the surface? Who will OU be honest with if not a community that has invested time, money and emotional connection into its success?
When the regents named him president in the wake of two years’ worth of chaos, Joe Harroz kept repeating one goal for the university: To be honest and clear-eyed with one another as an OU community. If Harroz and the university are serious about that goal — if it was more than just a platitude meant to quiet a community tired of being kept in the dark — they’ll release the Jones Day reports to NonDoc.