Why is it that, in a time of crisis, when the transparency of public agencies is more crucial than ever, so many administrators — from government to higher education — are going out of their way to keep things in the dark?
For instance, the West Virginia University Board of Governors has met behind closed doors (figuratively) at least twice over the past two months to discuss its plans regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns of racism at the university and the school’s budget and tuition, according to a report from the Gazette-Mail’s Ryan Quinn.
Under state law, public governing bodies, including those for universities — funded, at least in part, by West Virginians’ tax dollars — are allowed to enter an executive session to discuss personnel issues or pending litigation, among other things. The WVU board is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of that law by shutting out the public on so many broad and vital discussions.
In normal times, an executive session would be called for by a board member, with a reason given, seconded and voted on, and members of the public and news media would either leave the room or the board would go to a private room. The WVU Board of Governors is meeting online because of the coronavirus, so, when members enter executive session, the public live stream of the meeting is cut off.
This poses a couple of problems. For one, it’s more difficult for the public to challenge the need for an executive session. Also, while reporters are informed when a regular meeting resumes after an executive session online, the general public has no real way of knowing and might miss important actions or dialogue.
It’s troubling that the board of the state’s largest university might be talking in private about how it will handle operations in the fall in regard to the coronavirus. Setting regulations and policy to curb the spread of COVID-19 might be one of the most important decisions the board ever makes. Students, parents, university employees and anyone else with an interest in how this issue is being addressed should certainly be allowed to hear discussions among the people who will directly shape such policy.
The only reason the public even knows about these discussions is because some board members told a reporter about it after the closed sessions were over. Who knows what other topics that flout the state’s open meetings law are being hashed out while no one else is listening?
Whether it’s CARES Act funding distributed by the state government or the WVU board discussing student safety, transparency is crucial to the process. This pandemic is, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Anyone who wants to should be allowed to hear and opine on, or ask questions regarding, the plans being formed to address the situation.