The University of Minnesota is acknowledging missteps in its handling of a recent request to turn over correspondence by a faculty task force that weighed renaming four campus buildings.
The U at first failed to provide the e-mails of a task force co-chair and improperly redacted other e-mails, such as notes in which a member offered mea culpas about her contribution to the group’s 125-page report. A newly released e-mail shows that a deputy chief of staff to former President Eric Kaler urged task force members in January to delete “all e-mail traces” of a task force meeting audio recording she shared so they would not have to provide it in response to a public data request.
The Star Tribune requested the correspondence this spring following a contentious debate over task force recommendations to rename buildings named after U administrators in the 1930s and ’40s, when the university excluded black students from its dorms. In rejecting those recommendations, some U regents had charged that task force members manipulated the historical record to condemn the late leaders — a charge the e-mails do not substantiate.
Open government advocates, such as U professor Jane Kirtley, say instructions coming out of the president’s office to destroy public data are “completely inappropriate” and could raise broader transparency questions.
But university officials said these missteps in no way reflect how the U does business.
“The University is committed to transparency and has that responsibility as a public organization,” U spokesman Chuck Tombarge said in a statement.
An 11-member task force set out last fall to examine the legacies of four former administrators featured in a 2017 campus exhibit that explored discrimination at the U.
Students had called for the renaming of Coffman Memorial Union, named after former President Lotus Coffman, and three Twin Cities campus halls.
Correspondence by task force members, administrators and regents released to the Star Tribune in May showed the task force scrambled to research the late leaders and complete the report on a tight timeline.
Some regents criticized the task force and its report, including what they saw as a failure to examine the role of the U’s governing board at the time.
University faculty and administrators have decried the regents’ attacks and stressed they stand by the scholarship reflected in the report.
When the university first responded to the Star Tribune request 2½ months after the paper made it, the newspaper questioned why the data did not include the e-mails of a task force co-chair, Susanna Blumenthal, a professor of law and history at the U. A university spokesman explained that Blumenthal’s busy schedule had delayed compiling those e-mails.
Staff ultimately decided to provide more than 1,800 pages they had already received from other task force members, assuming Blumenthal’s e-mails were included.
The Star Tribune also questioned redactions to some e-mails.
One, which German professor Leslie Morris sent after a contentious March regents meeting, appears in twice in the data, once redacted and elsewhere unredacted. (Morris was the lead researcher of Edward Nicholson, a former dean for whom Nicholson Hall is named.) Referring to regents’ criticism of the research, that unredacted sentence reads, “As the lead on Nicholson, I was horrified, and I apologize for any inaccuracies there might be in that part of the report.”
The U said at the time that e-mail and several others were redacted because the information was “specifically about an individual and evaluative in nature” — an exemption Leita Walker, an attorney for the Star Tribune, noted in a letter to the U only applies to formal third-party evaluations.
Last week, the university provided more than 600 pages of Blumenthal’s e-mails. They do not substantially alter the picture painted by the earlier correspondence, which shows faculty striving for an in-depth understanding of the U’s history.
But they do include e-mails and other documents not in the earlier release. For instance, an e-mail from task force co-chair John Coleman to Blumenthal concerns a part of the report about Nicholson, who the report says surveilled students and faculty, particularly Jews. Coleman says the section was “thin” in terms of research that goes beyond the archival documents from the exhibit and an earlier scholarly paper, but he had to turn it in to meet a deadline.
The new correspondence also includes an e-mail from Julie Reuvers — at the time a deputy chief of staff for policy and initiatives to Kaler who now serves on President Joan Gabel’s strategy team — with a “friendly reminder” that university e-mail is subject to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the state’s open records law.
Reuvers urges task force members to download a recording of a January task force meeting she shared and then delete all e-mails referring to it. The recording, which the university has now provided, simply captures members discussing how to structure and flesh out the report.
Tombarge said Reuvers’ e-mail was a well-intentioned attempt to reassure the task force and signal that the administration took its work seriously.
“Her focus in the moment was to help the committee do its best work,” he said, stressing that deleting public data is by no means a common or accepted practice in the administration.
The university also provided new versions of the redacted e-mails, removing or scaling back some redactions. Dan Herber, a senior associate general counsel, wrote Walker that the U conducted a thorough review of the e-mails the newspaper questioned.
“The university receives hundreds of MGDPA [Minnesota Government Data Practices Act] requests and reviews and produces many tens of thousands of pages every year in response,” he noted.
The newly unredacted e-mails include one in January from Coleman in which he tells an administrator in the provost’s office that he and Blumenthal had to put other obligations on hold to meet the report’s tight deadline.
In another, Morris apologizes to Blumenthal for citation and other issues with the section of the report she oversaw, saying, “I simply have not had the time to do the kind of in-depth work that was necessary.”
Kirtley, who was not involved with the task force, said it’s a healthy practice for the university to remind its employees regularly that their correspondence is subject to data practices requests. But to encourage them to delete e-mails after the fact is “just wrong,” she said.
Suki Dardarian, the Star Tribune’s managing editor, said the newspaper is still reviewing and assessing the university’s revised data disclosure.
“We appreciate the university’s effort to correct its initial public disclosure,” she said, “but we are concerned that it did so only after we challenged it to do so.”
Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781