COLUMN: As a journalist and sexual assault victim, CMU’s lack of transparency is disappointing
As someone who plans to dedicate their professional career to the field of journalism, knowing I attend a university that takes extraordinary measures to conceal the scope of sexual crimes on its campus is disheartening.
As someone whose life has been scarred by the same kinds of sexual violence I now report on, Central Michigan University's lack of transparency is terrifying.
Beginning Feb. 15 and culminating April 12, my colleagues in CMU's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists have been compiling an audit regarding the prevalence of sexual assault in the schools comprising the Mid-American Conference.
To do this, SPJ sent Freedom of Information Act requests to all 12 schools in the MAC asking for copies of all incident reports and arrest records relating to cases of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus between Aug. 15, 2016 and Feb. 1, 2018.
The choice to target the MAC was a calculated one. Knowing that FOIA regulations change from state-to-state, we aimed to illuminate the differences in transparency between the five states represented in the MAC — Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and New York.
The responses to the requests were predictably varied and can be viewed by visiting our website.
One thing worthy of attention, however, is that all three schools in Michigan targeted in the audit — CMU, Western Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University — came up short compared to their counterparts throughout the Midwest.
The fact Michigan falls short under the harsh light of FOIA isn't surprising, nor is it an isolated occurrence. According to a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, Michigan ranks the lowest among all other states in the nation in terms of transparency under open records laws.
CMU was particularly egregious in its response. The university refused to provide any records whatsoever, citing the personal nature of such documents and the threat they posed to reveal "embarrassing and intimate details" about the victims.
No other university had this kind of response.
Six of the schools targeted in the audit — University of Akron, Ball State University, Miami University, University of Toledo, Northern Illinois University and Bowling Green State — all gave the requested documents to varying degrees of thoroughness.
Some of the documents were heavily redacted and/or unhelpfully organized, but the information was there.
Even the two other schools in Michigan — WMU and EMU — both of which found their own unique loopholes to avoid releasing the requested information, didn't outright deny the requests.
CMU might just be the least transparent university in the least transparent state in the nation.
As noble as the sentiment of denying FOIA to protect the identity and safety of sexual violence victims may be on its face, neither the university nor its students benefit from the act of hiding the prevalence of sexual crimes on its campus.
As someone who has experienced sexual violence under the roof of a CMU residence hall — someone who would later attempt suicide as an indirect response of that experience — I can call out CMU's aversion to FOIA for what it is: an attempt to stifle a journalistic inquiry that threatens the school's image.
The example set by other universities included in the audit isn't flawless, but it sets a precedent CMU could learn from.
The solution is simple but the difference it makes is substantial. By redacting names and other potentially revealing content from police reports, a university can still offer insight on the size and scope of sexual violence on campus without compromising the identity of the victims.
CMU's decision to hide behind the assumption that sexual assault victims would suffer from inclusion in a FOIA result is disingenuous, and an insult to the people it pretends to protect.