KPLU deal raises UW transparency questions | KUOW News and Information

KPLU deal raises UW transparency questions

May 16, 2016

The University of Washington and KUOW officials worked to keep the acquisition of public radio station KPLU secret, according to a Seattle Times report.

The story says the deal was intentionally described in vague language on an agenda for a UW Board of Regents meeting. The Times story revealed that UW and Pacific Lutheran University officials tried to keep details under wraps for months until they were ready to announce it publicly.

Toby Nixon is with the Washington Coalition for Open Government. He said that even before the KPLU controversy, UW had issues with transparency.

"They have this track record of having meetings that weren’t easily accessible to the public the evening before their regular Regents' meetings at the home of the president," Nixon said. "And then they had this very behind-closed-doors process used to select the new president of the university, and now of course we have this controversy of the acquisition of KPLU by KUOW."

Nixon said the governing body of the University of Washington tends to act more like a corporate board, not like a public one.

"It's a completely different culture in the corporate world than it is in the public world in terms of, 'What are your reflexes?'" Nixon said. "Are your reflexes to have things be open and transparent and engage the public in decision making so that we reach a consensus? Or is your reflex to do things in secret because you don't want your competitors to find out about them?"

Nixon doesn't think public disclosure laws were broken by UW or PLU in their negotiations of the KPLU acquisition. But he said the spirit of the law was flouted.

UW Associate Vice President Norm Arkans issued the following statement to KUOW:

"Everything the University does is under public scrutiny as it should be. We're a public university and the public obviously has a right to know how we conduct ourselves. We take that responsibility seriously. With regard to some decisions, though, some of the work of necessity is done out of the public eye — negotiating real estate terms, admitting students, and selecting presidents. Our experience — and that of other higher education institutions around the country -- has been that candidate pools that reveal finalists for presidencies will not attract top people. And there is nothing in the law that requires finalists' names to be made public. Selecting the person for the job is done in public, but without naming the competing finalists. 

With regard to KPLU, we agreed to negotiate the terms of the proposed acquisition under a non-disclosure agreement with PLU. Those negotiations took the better part of a year. At the point when they were ready to be presented to the Regents, they were made public and continue to be public, which is how we got to where we are, waiting to see if the Friends of KPLU are successful in raising the funds to purchase the station. And the record of those negotiations is part of the public record."

(Arkans is an ex-officio member of the Board of Directors of KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio.)

PLU also responded to request for comment. Vice president for marketing and communications Donna Gibbs said in a statement:

"Every business transaction involves a non-disclosure agreement, especially during negotiations that may or may not lead to an agreement.  The facts are that the KPLU community advisory board and the public were made aware of the transaction, appropriately, only after both the PLU and UW boards had authorized their leadership teams to pursue a definitive agreement.  And both parties subsequently agreed to allow an alternative community buyer six months to complete a competing offer."

KUOW has hired an independent editor to oversee coverage of this story.