May 25, 2014; Politico

One of the missing indicators in the university rankings prepared by the Princeton Review is the number of sexual assaults suffered by students on campus. Nita Chaudhary, the co-founder of UltraViolet, thinks that the Princeton Review ought to include that important information and has launched a petition to that effect, garnering 36,000 signatures so far.

Did you know that one in five college women are victims of sexual assault? For a parent choosing the right college for one’s children, how a university handles sexual assaults might be very important. The White House seems to agree and recently released the names of 55 colleges and universities under federal investigation for the way they have handled sexual assaults, including Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Southern California.

The Obama administration’s decision to release the names of universities being investigated for their sexual assault policies may be a step in a direction of what has long been an unfulfilled promise. Upon coming into office, President Obama promised to create the most open administration ever, but its track record has been quite the opposite. Politico points out that the most radical acts of government transparency haven’t been initiated by the administration, but by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Will the release of the federal investigations of universities be a step toward greater federal transparency in other arenas—for example, federal investigations of corporations?

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“I do think this suggests a potential new model,” Gary Bass, formerly the CEO of OMB Watch and now president of the Bauman Foundation, observed. “If you’re doing it here, why not do it more broadly?”

Fatima Goss-Graves of the National Women’s Law Center suggested that the same thing could be done for federal investigations conducted by the Office for Civil Rights regarding violations of Title IX, potentially unfair treatment of women’s sports programs by colleges and universities. Reportedly, disclosing the Title IX investigations has had the support of Vice President Joe Biden, though Politico suggests that Obama himself also supports the Title IX disclosures.

Colleges and universities weren’t happy with the administration’s sexual assault disclosures, concerned that the information would unfairly tarnish the reputations of colleges and universities that might in the end be shown to have done nothing wrong. “Once an institution suffers a reputational harm of that nature, it isn’t always simple for it to bounce back to where it should be given what an investigation ultimately produces,” said Ada Meloy of the American Council on Education. Meloy also said that the disclosure of the list of colleges “came out of the blue” with no discussion other than telling a couple of the colleges a day or so before the release they might be on it.

While Bass suggested that the sexual assault investigation disclosure was consistent with President Obama’s stated policies on transparency, others hinted that this specific disclosure might have been because of the recent media attention on campus sexual assaults rather than a move toward greater governmental openness. It is “a classic example to me of the headlines driving the policy,” according to Jane Kirtley, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and former executive director of the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“This is new, and this is, I think, unusual,” said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “They’re not so transparent about other investigations—at all. I’d love to see the same kind of transparency about civil rights investigations at prisons, particularly at private prisons.… I’m all for transparency, and I’d like to see this expanded.”

Bass thinks that President Obama gets the issue of disclosure, but is thwarted by resistance from within the bureaucracy. That seems like an awfully generous reading of the president, given the performance of the administration during its first five years. Its unprecedented prosecutions of government whistleblowers don’t seem to have been the result of some out-of-control low-level bureaucrats, but appear to have had direction and blessing from high levels of government. Distinguishing an unrelentingly hostile attitude toward whistleblowers from the administration’s position on transparency, especially since there has been much less transparency from the administration than advocates had anticipated, is a stretch.

The commitment of the Obama administration to its own statements on transparency and disclosure cannot be confirmed as solid and secure simply by virtue of the release of the names of 55 universities facing investigations because of their campus sexual assault policies and the potential release of Title IX investigations. Much more is needed from this administration to suggest that the commitment to transparency and disclosure is real.—Rick Cohen