Sunday, March 09, 2008

The National Media & Blogsphere Follow the Lead of Left of Centre

This past Friday Inside Higher Education ran a story on Oregon State University's online budget. I had written about this nearly a year ago. Here is the opening of the IHE piece.
Sure, public universities generally make their annual budgets available. But how much did the chemistry department spend on copying at Kinko’s – yesterday?

At Oregon State University, that kind of detailed information on financial transactions is accessible online, albeit only to those connected to computers on the campus. “It’s pretty basic, but it is very transparent. Everybody in the institution can see everything that goes on everywhere,” says Mark McCambridge, vice president for finance and administration at Oregon State.

“There’s always this mystery — ‘The vice president is holding back money,’ or ‘This person got more money than I did’.… There’s always that mystery that surrounds the budget, and in our case it isn’t there.”

On Oregon State’s budget reporting Web site, users can track expenditures, transaction by transaction, by clicking through the various budget lines in an academic department or administrative office, from the president’s on down. As shown in a demonstration of the system, accessible here, users dissecting the biology department’s budget can check out expenditures under “lab supplies” and see, for instance, $49.15 spent at WARD’S Natural Science one day, and $115.47 spent at PETCO three days earlier.
I left the following comment on the IHE story.
When I read about a school which voluntarily opens its books in the name of good management I see red, because it drives home to me how secretively the pubic research universities in Pennsylvania are run.

Pennsylvania recently did its first major overhaul of the state’s Right-To-Know law in fifty years. The old law did not cover Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln, the so-called state-related universities. The early drafts of the new law extended the law to these institutions.

Last summer in testimony before the state senate, Penn State president Graham Spanier vociferous and angrily argued that his school and the others should not be covered in the new law. He laid out a scenario in which Penn State would be handicapped by the law in its competition with rivals such as Penn, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon. Never mind that Penn State isn’t in the same league as these schools and couldn’t possibly compete under any circumstances.

But Spanier carried the day. With the help of a slight of hand by Jake Corman (R-Bellefonte Old Main), the law which passed excluded the state-related schools from having to respond to open record requests.

If you are considering taking a faculty position at Penn State beware that the anti-democratic attitude displayed by Spanier in his senate testimony is emblematic of the way in which the school is run. If you are looking for a free and open environment you won’t find it in Happy Valley.

This in turn inspired a post by Richard Vedder on the Center for College Affordability and Productivity blog.

It's good to know that this blog is having something of an impact on the debate about transparency at public universities.

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