How to investigate a university (the right way)
Don’t let Rolling Stone’s botched story of sexual assault at UVA spook you: 2015 should be a standout year for investigations of universities and colleges.
With the White House creating a task force to look into sexual assaults on college campuses and the Department of Education announcing a string of Title IX investigations, there will be more than enough material for reporters to dig into properly. Throw in incidents of hazing and academic misconduct, and it’s no wonder so many compelling news stories came to light this year.
While the logistics of higher ed investigations don’t vary greatly from investigations of other institutions, reporters may be surprised when institutions so dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and truth act surreptitiously or attempt to obstruct the flow of information.
Universities “may give lip service to the First Amendment and openness and transparency, but when you try to see how they act in real life when they're being confronted with serious questions, that attitude changes,” New York Times investigative reporter Walt Bogdanich said.
Here are a few tips from reporters and editors about how to produce the best story when probing a college or university.
Know what you’re entitled to
As with all investigative reporting, the process often starts with filing requests for specific data, cases or other public information. And then waiting.
Carrie Wells of the Baltimore Sun said she filed her requests for five years worth of disciplinary records against student organizations from all 12 public universities in Maryland on Jan. 30.
While some colleges responded quickly, others required several follow-ups and were less than eager to hand over the public information. The last college to fulfill the request did so in July.
Wells’ story examining the brutal extent of hazing at Maryland schools ran in November.
“This was a very long and tedious process in some cases,” Wells said. “ I think it helps to know legally what you’re entitled to and to tailor the request really specifically.”
Though much information at universities is public record, FERPA -- the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act -- complicates things. Wells said several institutions referenced FERPA as a reason not to hand over records even though the law didn’t always deal with the information they were withholding. Wells said she knew FERPA didn’t apply the way some schools were citing it and she was prepared to argue further and make her case.
“Too often universities hide behind FERPA just like hospitals hide behind HIPAA,” Bogdanich said, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. “Their interest is protecting their reputation. I’m not sure it’s so much about protecting the students.”
Often there are organizations already in place dealing with the same issues a story is investigating.
When Bogdanich starts reporting a new campus assault story -- he did several this year, including investigations of how Florida State University and Hobart and William Smith Colleges responded to rape cases -- he connects with women’s groups in the area.
“I find cases by connecting to the network of women’s groups who make it their business to know what’s going on, and they keep their ear to the ground,” Bogdanich said. “And I don’t take what they tell me at face value, but I do respect them and use them as a way to identify possible problems out there.“
Those allies might come in unlikely forms, such as the Maryland attorney general who told university officials they needed to comply with the Baltimore Sun request about disciplinary records.
If a problem is expansive, other media organizations might be willing to join together, as in North Carolina, where 10 news organizations filed a suit against the University of North Carolina when officials refused to release personnel records for employees facing disciplinary action.
Editor and Publisher Jeff Gauger said the (Greensboro) News & Record is not one of the lead dogs on the case -- UNC is about 75 miles away -- but the newspaper knew it was necessary to advocate on the public’s behalf for access to the public documents.
“We joined the suit because the issue is important and because we thought a show of force by the state’s media organizations can help,” Gauger said. “And because we've had our own difficulties with access in a personal discipline issue" involving the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Be prepared to fight
Though public universities receive state and federal funding, they are still institutions making decisions in their own self-interest. Which means they likely won’t be eager to hand over public information that might bring scrutiny. In rare circumstances, repeated requests and hounding might not be enough, and legal action could be necessary.
“We fight every day almost with public institutions to get public records,” Gauger said. “It doesn’t often result in litigation, but there's often conflict, negotiations, tense conversations, and occasionally I think its necessary to assert the public’s right in this DEFCON 5 sort of way.”
The suit the News & Record signed on to is the third public records lawsuit against UNC since an academic scandal there began in 2010.
“The media in general are saying, ‘Well, [UNC] said transparency was the answer to this problem and to restoring the university’s credibility after the academic scandal, and yet they’re not practicing transparency’” Gauger said.
Bogdanich came across that same irony in his reporting, where universities claim to be beacons of knowledge and truth, yet are defensive and secretive with their own information.
Bogdanich said FSU “hired a team of crisis managers” who acted as a buffer between him and the school.
“I found that universities are not accustomed to dealing with investigative reporters or reporters that are digging and looking under rocks,” Bogdanich said. “They’re used to promoting all the good stories on campus. They are not necessarily ready for an investigation.”
Records are key to laying the foundation of a story, but connecting with a student who can give a first-hand account of the problem is imperative to connecting with a reader.
Because FERPA removes student names from records, it can be difficult to identify the parties involved.
Wells said her editor was adamant she find students who would go on the record about hazing incidents, but she kept coming up short.
“The easy avenues weren’t there,” she said. “There weren’t any lawsuits. There weren’t any blogs or advocacy groups locally that could help out.”
But she kept digging over the course of about nine months and a phone call to a student leader on campus connected her to the man who would become her main source.
“I would say exhaust every avenue that you can think of because often it’s worth it,” Wells said. “One of those methods will pay off.”
Expect an emotional response
After a story runs, it’s likely the reporter and the news organization could face strong criticism for highlighting problems at the school.
While this is true of most investigations, Bogdanich said there’s something specific to colleges that creates a powerful bond with those who attend or root for that school.
“I think there’s something special there, and that’s why there are these very emotional responses,” Bogdanich said. “That’s also why universities raise hundreds of millions of dollars -- because of that feeling of that special relationship and that special time in our lives when we went to school. And you want to rise up and defend a school that had been so good to you.”
There’s also a lot of money pumped into those schools, even in tighter financial times, Gauger said.
“Public universities are big, big organizations with lots of money and lots of highly paid people running the show,” he said. “They think they know best.”
Bogdanich said The New York Times received letters from both FSU and Hobart and William Smith Colleges after his stories ran. The Times responded to both in detail. Bogdanich said he makes a point to hear out opposition after a story, including any that comes from students and alumni who are defensive of their school. Unfortunately, sometimes those comments have been nasty and even turned threatening.
“Naturally when you report critically about how institutions respond improperly to these complaints, they’re going to howl bloody murder,” he said. “They’re going to complain, and that’s not unexpected. They’re entitled to their opinion. But no one’s going to challenge the facts that we’ve reported on.”