Policymakers | Freedom of Expression

These are the People Who will Decide Whether Accountability and Free Speech are Important to OU

THE POST   |  January 21, 2009 by Editorial

The Ohio University Board of Trustees will review a policy this week that would gag its members from voicing dissent about board decisions and insulate the president from criticism.

We can’t say we’re surprised. The board has a history of ignoring campus concerns, and this policy will only make it easier.

The four-page policy—known as the “Statement of Expectations”—is internal and likely would go unnoticed. It doesn’t result in fee increases or new buildings on campus, but it might be the single most important policy drafted here in recent years. Basically, the policy would allow for the stifling of free speech and the bullying of board members into groupthink.

The policy channels communication between the trustees and the rest of the university through the board chair. It suggests “The Board must speak with a single voice…Board Members should refrain from publicly criticizing actions of the Board, the President or other members of the University Community.”

What’s next? Loyalty tests at College Gate?

The Board of Trustees approves every meaningful decision on this campus. It reviews the budget every year and rubber stamps spending without oversight from a higher body. The only check on the board’s accountability is the public—whose dollars it spends—and now trustees want to shield themselves from that.

The policy has even caught the ire of an expert on boards of trustees.

“We rely on our trustees to protect the public interest. These standards would render trustees potted plants at a time when we need to have active, engaged trustees dealing with major issues on our college campuses,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

“I’m fearful that the board would be more focused on what it can’t do and can’t say than on addressing the real needs of the students and the university.”

We couldn’t agree more.

So why would the board even consider such a policy? The short answer is that the rose-tinted windows of Fortress Cutler have been shattered by public criticism in recent years, and the trustees want to board them up.

The board wants to put on a public mask that hides the sometimes-ugly realities of running a university. It expects students and taxpayers to believe that this board and the administrators it hires are the arbiters of good decisions, and it refuses to answer to those who question that authority.

But we should have seen this coming. The writing was on the wall in July, when The Athens News reported that C. Daniel DeLawder, the board chairman, opposed a records request The Post filed.

The News reported that DeLawder wrote this in an e-mail: “This is a very sore subject for me, and perhaps it’s time we started pushing back. And I am quite serious; I am even unsure that we should provide the next document without a fight. It sickens me to think of the waste and unproductive time being spent in the name of open records and freedom of the press.”

Maybe this is step one of what DeLawder would consider “pushing back.” At the very least, it confirms that the chairman, the man who will inevitably filter every trustee decision and comment, has no respect for the First Amendment.

No doubt the board believes this policy is the best thing for Ohio University. But in adopting such a policy, it ignores a core tenet of good decision-making: a diversity of opinions. Academia has never been built on consensus; the best ideas thrive when people disagree.

But the trustees don’t know Ohio University like we do. They’re not on campus every day—they’re a group of bureaucrats who look at bottom lines five times a year.

Every trustee who votes in favor of such a policy should pair it with a resignation letter. If they don’t want to be held accountable for contributing to a decision, they should find another university to ruin.


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