Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Poshlust - the University Administration's Attitude

Toward the Public's Right to Know

"...the Russian word
poshlost' (which Nabokov likes to transliterate as poshlust, which not only indicates the way the word is pronounced, but also uses two English words -- posh and lust -- that resonate with the meaning of the Russian).

It's sort of an untranslatable word. It is often rendered as "banality," but it can also indicate something that is in bad taste or is trashy or cheap, but often poshlust disguises itself as something great, true or beautiful. Nabokov says that 'poshlust is not only the obviously trash but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely attractive.' ... Laura Trice

From the Daily:

Two state bills could erroneously privatize public data.

PUBLISHED: 04/27/2009

The presumption of Minnesota’s Data Practices Act, the state’s open records law, that all government data should be public, unless state or federal statute holds otherwise, is a sound and important one. But privacy advocates are incorrectly eroding the spirit of that presumption with two bills in the state’s Capitol protecting what they call the privacy of state employees and private companies over the public’s right to know whether those employees and companies are benefiting from their ties with the state or misusing state money respectively. The benefits of landing on the side of transparency far outweigh that of landing on the side of privacy.

One of those bills, the Tubby Smith Act , is a result of this newspaper’s efforts to obtain the annual athletically related income from head coaches Tubby Smith, Tim Brewster, J. Robinson and Don Lucia for the past 10 years. In an advisory opinion, the Minnesota Department of Administration held that the University of Minnesota complied with the state’s Data Practices Act in denying the request. And now, state senators are seeking to codify that advisory opinion, while their counterparts in the state House are correctly pushing opposing legislation that would make that data public.

Privacy advocates posit that an athletics coach should not have to report income made by, for example, mowing a neighbor’s lawn. Without going into too much detail about the legitimacy of that counterfactual, it ignores the primary purpose of making “athletically-related income” public data: highlighting conflicts of interest or scandal. Just as University physicians should report outside income, so too should University coaches. Indeed, University physicians and coaches alike obtain much of their outside income primarily because of their position at the University. The dangers of privatizing that outside income — creating a system that would make kickbacks or conflicts of interest harder to catch — far outweigh a public employee’s right to privacy.

Other legislation in the Minnesota Legislature would make “All financial, business or proprietary data collected, created, received or maintained by the University of Minnesota in connection with investments … [become] nonpublic data.” The legislation overrides current state Data Practices Act provisions which, according to House co-author Rep. Steve Simon , make “business models, trade secret information and litigation involvement” of venture capital funds and investment firms — otherwise private information — public upon request.

University of Minnesota Chief Investment Officer Stuart Mason said in an interview “[The University] commit[s] a certain amount of money to a venture capital fund. As part of our due diligence and monitoring of the venture capital fund, we get the business plans, interview CEOs, obtain financial models, etc. We get lots of sensitive data.” Currently, because the University is a public institution, beholden to public data practice law, that sensitive data can be obtained by the venture capital funds’ competitors. As a result, Mason says the University “has been systematically disincluded from the best venture capitalists,” amounting to potentially $30 or $40 million per year.

With higher education institutions hungry for cash, venture capital funds are holding a club to public data practice laws across the nation, withdrawing partnerships where public money ensures transparency. But if these companies are unwilling to allow public knowledge of their mode of operation, the public has a right to say, “Take a hike.” Under current law, the public can uniquely peer into these funds to ascertain the ethicality of their practices, a paramount concern for taxpayer investment. Yet language in the bills appears to make individual investments untraceable after “initial commitment,” except for myriad meaningless portfolio totals.

At a public university, the thirst for knowledge and information ought not to be squelched for lust of money. It is imperative that Minnesota lawmakers land on the side of transparency on both bills, which would dangerously close the channels of public information if passed.

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