Reevely: Carleton loses fight to keep survey of Jewish students secret

Amazing. No matter what the findings, the bigger story becomes Carleton’s efforts to hide them:

Carleton University has to stop hiding a survey of Jewish students meant to find out how they feel about life on campus, a panel of senior judges says. Well, how they felt about life on campus at the beginning of this decade. Carleton’s been fighting for five years to keep the survey from public view.

When the case finally made it to court this week, three judges of Ontario Divisional Court took one day to laugh the university’s arguments off. They heard the case last Tuesday and told Carleton to stop screwing around on Wednesday, in a ruling that observes that Carleton’s lawyer could point to no precedents for its secrecy and had no evidence supporting its more outlandish claims about what might happen if it lost. (Full disclosure: I have a degree from Carleton. Fuller disclosure: About once a year, Carleton as an institution does something so at odds with the values it teaches that I cringe.) This survey was done for an internal commission set up by then-president Roseann Runte in 2010 to look at how various minority groups were treated at Carleton. The point of striking a commission — this one included several dozen people, from students to senior administrators to outside volunteers — is usually to get to the bottom of a serious problem in the most open way possible. Air all the dirty laundry. Get everything out there so we can start fixing problems.

The commission’s work was a bit of a mishmash, since the “inter-cultural, inter-religious and inter-racial relations on campus” it was supposed to look at are incredibly diverse and complicated. But its report in 2012 highlighted some standout problems on campus: legitimate debates about Israel too often spilled over into anti-Semitism, or into discussions where they didn’t belong both in classrooms and faculty meetings; and Indigenous students felt stereotyped and sometimes didn’t have help they needed adapting to university life.

The commission’s most important data-gathering came in surveys — one campus-wide one and narrower followups to dig into the first big survey’s findings. The final report includes a detailed summary of the big survey, including what questions it asked, what the response rates were (barely 10 per cent among students, and 30 per cent among Carleton staff), how members of particular groups found their Carleton experiences more satisfactory or less.

The report didn’t do the same for a follow-up survey of Jewish students and staff. “Respondents to the survey (of Jews at Carleton) participated on the condition of anonymity and therefore the results have not been distributed,” the commission report said. That’s it. This is a non-standard definition of “anonymity.” You can release results of a survey without revealing who said what. A university, of all places, should have this capability.

In 2013, someone (the person’s name isn’t in the court decision) filed an access-to-information request for the commission’s materials, including the raw results of the surveys and details of how they were conducted, and minutes from the commission’s two years’ worth of meetings.

“The university submits that the requester seeks the information to challenge the findings of the commission,” this week’s court ruling says. Which is neither here nor there — if documents are public, they’re public. A government institution doesn’t get to keep public information back just because it doesn’t like what a member of the public might do with it.

The survey is research, Carleton argued. The minutes of the commission’s meetings are related to research. We don’t have to give out research. Among other things, it wouldn’t release “the survey (of Jewish students) and its results, and an explanation of the survey methodology, who designed the survey, who approved the survey, how it was conducted, who analyzed the survey results.”

Ontario post-secondary institutions are covered by provincial public-information law but they can hold back material “respecting or associated with research conducted or proposed by an employee of an educational institution or by a person associated with an educational institution.” The idea is that if every lab note from every PhD student were open to public release, competitors would spend half their time nosing around each other’s work and answering requests instead of researching.

The law covers academic research, not stuff a university does that’s like any other corporation, the judges decided: “(T)he survey results and associated information are akin to market research which is not particular to universities and is not subject to the specific concerns of academic freedom articulated by the legislators.”

The university’s lawyer “was unable to provide a single decision where information gathered internally by a university for its own purposes and unrelated to academic research was covered by (the) research exemption,” the judges pointed out.

The university argued that releasing this information will make all university research harder and harm Carleton’s competitiveness. “No evidence was adduced to substantiate this claim,” the judges observed, using legalese for “Lawyer, please.”

Carleton’s conduct here is embarrassing for a public institution that set out to address problems on campus by talking about them openly. The fact it took five years for Carleton to get slapped down is embarrassing for Ontario’s access-to-information system. Both need to work better than they have.

Source: Reevely: Carleton loses fight to keep survey of Jewish students secret

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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