Recently, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block weighed in on the conflict of interest between the federal Freedom of Information Act, the California Public Records Act, and academic freedoms. Over the past few years, and with increasing frequency, faculty members’ scholarly work and communications have been requested as a matter of public record from UCLA and other public universities. According to Chancellor Block in an email statement released last week, faculty at public institutions must be protected from public records requests which could limit and threaten their academic research.
Making academics a matter of public record can allow politics to interfere with academic freedom. The process of peer review is also threatened, says Block, as communications are available to the public under the current laws. Such measures, he explains, limit academic freedom where this freedom intersects with the obligation of a public institution to conduct “business transparently.” Many academics in California and across the country are calling for amendments to be made to the existing laws.
According to the current federal Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act, the public may access any records not exempt by law from disclosure which are held by public and federal California state institutions. This affects UCLA as a public university. The public, in theory, has access to invoices, data, research, emails, documents, and information produced by or at the university. However, when it comes to academics the debate is whether the public still has a right to know. Research, development, and academics do not necessarily have to do with how the public institution is operated, and many are calling for these areas to be considered for protection as intellectual property.
While, in theory, access to information produced by or for a public institution should be open, in 2012 the UCLA’s joint Administration-Senate Academic Freedom Task Force released a statement, basically saying that the public has not upheld its end of the Public Records Act. The claim is that scholarly information is increasingly being accessed for ill, and used to intimidate faculty.
Many faculty at UCLA and other public universities are involved in controversial projects, and external groups may want to either support or criticize these projects’ results Add to this that many of the projects are not anywhere near completion, and the danger is that academic projects will not be free to grow and change organically, because of the fear of an ever-present “Big Brother” watching.
Today, Block is an advocate for public universities enjoying the same academic protections as private universities. Currently, UCLA and other public institutions must work on this issue, developing new systems for protecting documented communication and academic research. The controversial issue has created concern across academia as to how academic freedom is impacted by open record laws in various states. While this issue has not come up in front of the state legislature yet, individuals like Block will continue to push for reform.