As a student reporter at the Daily Illini newspaper, Jennifer Wheeler tried to use the state's open records law last May to get the results of class evaluations filled out by students.
In six weeks, she will graduate from the Urbana-Champaign campus without ever writing about how students rated their instructors and courses. Despite a recent ruling from the state attorney general's office that the documents should be made public, Wheeler learned in mid-March — nine months after she first filed the request — that she won't get them.
University officials initially claimed professors wouldn't participate in the voluntary evaluation process if results were made public. After the attorney general rejected that argument, the university cited other privacy and personnel reasons to withhold the documents, stating that while they "respect and appreciate" the advice, "our interpretation is correct."
"I thought when I got the letter (from the attorney general's office), it meant that I got the documents," Wheeler said. "But I guess that's not quite the case."
Wheeler is not alone. Since January 2010, when a new Illinois law gave Attorney General Lisa Madigan authority to mediate records disputes between government bodies and the public, her office has handled more than 70 cases involving the U. of I.
The attorney general's Office of Public Access Counselor has repeatedly disagreed with the university about whether records should be public in cases ranging from the university's search for a new president to a sports scandal at the Springfield campus.
"The University of Illinois steadfastly refuses to comply fully and completely with (Freedom of Information Act) laws and to supply the public with documents it knows are public," Ann Spillane, Madigan's chief of staff, said last week. She said the U. of I. is among the agencies that "repeatedly disobey the law."
U. of I. spokesman Thomas Hardy strongly disagrees.
"In the overwhelming majority of instances … we did what the (public access counselor) recommended that we do," Hardy said. "In a small handful of cases, we had principled differences of opinion about how some of the exemptions within the law should be applied. That's hardly a pattern of disobedience."
In some cases, the public access counselor agreed with the university's rationale for not releasing information. But in 27 instances, including some that took months to resolve, the office disagreed and found the U. of I. could not withhold documents or redact information.
In most of those cases, the university said, it turned over the records. But in others, even after getting a favorable ruling, requesters such as Wheeler still haven't gotten the documents.
Hardy said the university's three campuses handle an extraordinary number of records requests — 758 since the new law took effect — and released more than 100,000 pages of documents in response last year.
But it took more than a year of wrangling before the university provided documents in a scandal involving the women's softball team at the Springfield campus, including coaches' resignation letters.
It wasn't until last week that The State Journal-Register received a less-redacted copy of a letter in the case, 15 months after its request. Attorney general officials and the newspaper's lawyer said one key document — a $200,000 settlement agreement between a student player and the university — was disclosed only after the attorney general's office subpoenaed records.
"We still don't have the records we are entitled to, even in cases where the attorney general agrees with us," said lawyer Don Craven.
And even when records are released, they may come after delays that would not have happened under the old law.
For example, in a case involving the cost of the U. of I. presidential search, the university withheld all records while it sought permission from the attorney general to redact some information. Under the old records law, Hardy noted, the university had the discretion to make a redaction and release the information. "You would have gotten that in a fortnight, or 14 days, the same documents that you basically obtained" in several months, he said.
(The Tribune has filed federal and state lawsuits against the U. of I. for records in a separate matter; a federal judge ruled in the Tribune's favor in March.)
Wheeler, the U. of I. senior, hopes the student newspaper fights the latest denial.
"I guess it's some younger journalist's project now," she said. "But I really would have liked to have worked on it."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times