(The Center Square) — A major change in public records requirements for some of Pennsylvania’s best-known universities is working through the General Assembly.
Yet, while expansive, it would leave the public with less information about higher education than is available in other states.
Senate Bill 488 would require state-related universities (University of Pittsburgh and Temple, Penn State, and Lincoln universities) to disclose salary, budget, and contract information in a user-friendly online database. Donor privacy would be unaffected and remain confidential.
The bill passed first consideration in the Senate State Government Committee on Tuesday. If it’s signed into law, it would align Pennsylvania’s transparency rules with the majority of other states.
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“It is important to note that Pennsylvania is one of only three states in the nation that explicitly exempts such universities from open records provisions — Alaska and Delaware the other two,” Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg, wrote in a legislative memo. “For most of the nation, state-funded universities’ records are presumed open or have been judicially confirmed as open.”
In the past, the lack of open records and major exemptions for state-related universities had been a significant issue. The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media organization, argued that a stronger open records law would have brought Penn State’s sex abuse scandal to light sooner.
The bill will require state-related universities to provide the highest 200 salaries of employees, expanded from the top 25 salaries they must now report on the IRS Form 990. However, those salaries can be “presented in salary ranges comprised of bands no more than $75,000,” meaning that exact salaries will not be required.
Institutions must also provide revenue and expenditure budgets, financial information on a project related to a line-item appropriation from the General Fund, information on auxiliary enterprises (such as campus housing, dining services, and hotels) that use tuition or state funds, and audited financial statements.
Median and mean salary information (rather than individual salaries) will also be required, as will non-salary compensation. The universities will also need to submit a report on their direct funding received from the state government and make meeting minutes from board of trustees’ meetings publicly available, along with information on contracts of at least $10,000.
For most of the nation, state-funded universities’ records are presumed open or have been judicially confirmed as open.
“There is plenty of room for improvement in the level of transparency and accountability we can expect from these institutions,” Mastriano said. “It is important to note that this legislation was devised in conjunction with these universities and the universities support passage of this legislation.”
While the bill would be a major expansion of transparency and public oversight of these universities that receive hundreds of millions in taxpayer funding annually, Pennsylvania will still lag behind other states in transparency.
The University of North Carolina system, for example, has an online database where the public can find salary information on every employee. While the database does not provide information on benefits and other relevant information, it reveals more than the mean and median salary information that SB488 would require.
The bill isn’t the only one focused on changing the status quo at state-related universities. HB2619, as The Center Square previously reported, would apply performance-based funding to the four institutions, tying three to ten percent of state funding to outcomes such as graduation rates and post-graduation salaries.
Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.
This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.