UW System ‘reviewing matter’ after report UW-Madison chancellor kept Big Ten communications from public

MADISON, Wis. — The UW System is reviewing communications involving UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank after reports that she kept those discussions last fall out of the public eye, according to a spokesperson. In response, Blank is apologizing for the ‘appearance’ of skirting public record laws last fall during Big Ten discussions about a return to campus and football season plans.

The announcement comes in the wake of a Washington Post report that Blank worked with other Big Ten presidents and chancellors to try to keep communications private using a third-party platform. Big Ten was the first of the major college conferences to announce a delayed season, but reversed that call a month later after public controversy and pressure from President Donald Trump.

Emails released to the Post under open record laws show Blank recommending that communication be moved to the Big Ten’s system portal, which uses third-party software Nasdaq Boardvantage, as a way to keep their discussions confidential.

“Please note that anything that arrives in or is sent from my email can be requested as a public record,” Blank said in an email responding to a request from the University of Michigan President to share “candid” testing and protocol experiences. “…Perhaps we can do this through the Big 10 portal, which will assure confidentiality?”

“UW System supports transparency,” a UW System spokesperson told News 3 Now in an email. “We learned of the scope of this matter late last week and are still assessing any need for confidentiality in these communications. In general, however, UW System considers written communications used to conduct public business as records to be disclosed and is reviewing the matter.”

Blank issued a statement to News 3 Now after the UW System review was reported, saying she regretted the language she used in her exchange with other chancellors.

“(The language) appears as though I intended to use the Big Ten board portal to skirt my public records responsibilities. This was surely not my intention and I apologize for that appearance,” Blank said. “I take my public records responsibilities seriously and regularly release records for my email upon request.”

‘We all talk on the phone a lot more here:’ How Blank says leadership deals with the state’s public record laws

The third-party platform used by the Big Ten conference for communications between leaders has so far hid the decision process from the public’s view, despite 13 of the Big Ten’s 14 institutions being publicly-funded and subject to any state-level open records laws. Wisconsin law requires public officials to keep their emails as part of their record and available to the public. Records requests from the Washington Post and New York Times for communications on that portal have been denied, emails have shown.

Chancellor Blank suggested in August that conference leaders move an email thread about campus testing and protocols to that platform, as a way to avoid a Wisconsin law that requires public officials to maintain their emails as part of publicly-requestable records. The email records first released to the Washington Post (and subsequently to News 3 Now) shed further light on how Blank handles Wisconsin’s laws governing public access to the operations of public officials.

In August, the University of Michigan’s President Mark Schlissel had asked leadership of other B1G universities to “informally and confidentially” share their campus experiences regarding COVID-19 faculty or staff cases resulting from student spread, and student testing effectiveness.

In response, Blank asked other Big Ten leadership to transfer communication to the Big Ten portal to “assure confidentiality”.

“Please note that anything that arrives in or is sent from my email can be requested as a public record,” Blank said in the email. “I know I’m not the only one for whom this is true. I would be delighted to share information, but perhaps we can do this through the Big 10 portal, which will assure confidentiality?”

“I’m pretty sure there are at least two other states in the B1G with similar issues, although WI public record statutes are among the most stringent,” Blank said in another email.

Schlissel responded by asking whether deleting emails was a way of getting around the law. Other conference leaders in separate emails said they shared the confidentiality concerns Blank had raised.

“becky [sic], if you simply delete emails after sending, does that relieve you of FOIA obligations? I share your concern of course,” Schlissel said in an August 26 email. Blank responded that her deleted files were subject to state record laws, and that completely erasing them was a violation of state law. “That’s really interesting and difficult,” Schlissel said.

“It does mean that we all talk on the phone a lot more here than in some other universities!” Blank responded.

Records on third-party platform kept from public

In August, the University had told the New York Times they had no records in response to requests for briefing materials, minutes, or meeting summaries prepared for Blank prior to meetings of the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors.

“Materials related to these meetings are provided through a Big Ten portal, and they cannot be downloaded or printed,” the UW’s public records custodian responded. In an internal email to an assistant, Blank said any documents on the Big Ten portal weren’t in her possession and therefore it was incorrect to say they’d be subject to the state’s public record law.

The Post reported that while thirteen of the Big Ten’s fourteen institutions are public and subject to Freedom of Information laws, the conference as a private entity does not have to comply. However, experts told the Post that, depending on state laws, that didn’t exempt public officials from the requirement to maintain and release their records.

“The Chancellor of UW-Madison deliberately sought to evade the requirements of our open records law by using a secret channel to communicate,” said Bill Lueders in an interview with News 3 Now, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. He added that under the law, information attached to existing emails–like the links to documentation on the Big Ten portal that Wisconsin had said weren’t subject to the law–should be released to the public as well.

But other tactics like using phone calls rather than writing for communications is a tried and true method in Wisconsin of skirting the law, he noted: “Unfortunately, many public officials do seek to evade creating records, holding their substantive conversations by phone rather than communicate in writing, because they don’t want a paper trail.

In an initial statement released Friday to News 3 Now, a spokesperson for Blank said the chancellor uses a ‘variety’ of ways to communicate with other Big Ten leadership.

“Chancellor Rebecca Blank communicates with her fellow Big Ten presidents and chancellors in multiple ways, but is mindful of her responsibilities under Wisconsin’s public records laws,” the statement said. “In the discussion in question, her intent was to move the conversation out of a long, reply-all email string and onto the Big Ten’s secure collaboration platform.”