AAUP Says U. of Virginia Is Giving Group Too Much Access to Climate Researchers' Documents

August 11, 2011

The American Association of University Professors is urging the University of Virginia's president, Teresa A. Sullivan, to revise and scale back an agreement to accommodate a conservative group that filed an open-records request seeking e-mails and other documents from climate scientists.

In a letter sent to Ms. Sullivan on Wednesday, the AAUP was joined by the three other advocacy groups—the American Geophysical Union, Climate Science Watch, and the Union of Concerned Scientists—in arguing that a May 24 agreement between the university and the American Tradition Institute gives the institute "needless access" to documents that should be withheld from it and "threatens the principles of academic freedom protecting scholarly research."

"The university should seek to improve the agreement to better protect scientists from harassment and intimidation," the letter says. "Moving forward with the agreement as it stands will send scientists at public institutions a message that communicating frankly with colleagues carries significant risk."

Among the objections to the agreement listed in the letter is that it lets lawyers from ATI, as the institute is known, review all documents in the university's possession, including materials that are likely to be determined to be exempt from disclosure under the state's open-records law.

"While the agreement asserts that ATI representatives would be under a gag order regarding exempt documents, we are concerned that giving requesters this level of access sets an entirely new precedent and would create a chilling effect for current Virginia researchers," the letter says. It argues that established practice in the state is for a judge, and not the requesting party, to privately review documents if there is a dispute over whether the open-records law covers them.

The letter also argues that some of the documents being sought are covered by an exemption to the state's open-records law covering working papers, and others are likely to be e-mails to and from students that should be covered under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Marian Anderfuren, a spokeswoman for the university, said on Thursday that officials there were still reviewing the AAUP letter and were not ready to comment on it.

David W. Schnare, who filed the open-records request as director of the American Tradition Institute's Environmental Law Center, argued on Thursday that the state's open-records law "does not protect academic freedom" and that "there is no adequate means to inspect the ethical standards and behaviors of the faculty of the university without public access to these records."

Mr. Schnare also said the letter from the four groups implies that his organization cannot be counted on to abide by its agreement not to disclose documents that might eventually be deemed private. "That kind of scurrilous accusation, even when done in a passive-aggressive manner, does not reflect well on any of the four organizations," he said.

"The university and the ATI have a healthy, professional, good-natured relationship," Mr. Schnare said, "and we are cooperating in a professional manner to insure that the faculty and the scientists are properly protected while meeting the needs of the public."

The documents being sought relate to climate research by a former professor, Michael E. Mann, who left the university in 2005 to become director of a center at Pennsylvania State University.