News Story

U-M’s Uncomfortable Relationship With Michigan’s Open Records Law

University officials often behave as if Freedom of Information Act requirements are optional

In April 2020, the University of Michigan announced that it would freeze base salaries due to budget issues, and the story was picked up by numerous news sources.

But despite the announcement and media coverage, U-M did not stop giving bonuses and other salary enhancements that boost pay well above an employee’s base salary.

In 2021 the Mackinac Center for Public Policy filed a request under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act for records showing the gross pay of U-M employees in one specified department. When university officials refused to comply, the Mackinac Center responded with a lawsuit. It challenged claims that payments to employees in excess of their base salary are not public information subject to disclosure.

The response also showed that many employees had received large pay bumps, which contradicted the widely reported claims of a salary freeze.

For example, a 2019 base salary of $139,050 was reported for Elizabeth Seney, who is employed by a university Office of Institutional Equity. But Seney’s gross pay was $167,488 in 2019, which was 20% higher than her published base salary.

In the last six years, the Mackinac Center filed four lawsuits against the University of Michigan, challenging its refusal to turn over public documents in a timely manner. [The stories covered salaries at the Office of Institutional Equity, how the university spent donated funds, information that university employees supplied to state officials about COVID policy and political statements made by the university president.]

An annual event called Sunshine Week was established in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to raise awareness of public’s right to see government records and information. Sunshine Week this year is March 13-19.

In Michigan, that right is recognized and made real by the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, signed into law in 1976.

But U-M's track record shows an uncomfortable relationship with the law's requirements.

“The University of Michigan’s consistent pattern of failing to adhere to the requirements of the FOIA is troubling to say the least,” said Steve Delie, an attorney at the Mackinac Center who specializes in FOIA law. “The Freedom of Information Act is designed to ensure that members of the public have access to the records they need to hold government bodies accountable and fully participate in the democratic process. The University’s FOIA practices should further this goal, but the legal record shows they are failing to do so.”

The University of Michigan has responded promptly to some FOIA requests. For example, the Mackinac Center filed a FOIA request for the contract of Robert Gordon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who had been hired by U-M. The university provided Gordon’s contract within 24 hours.

U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald noted that the university was also the only state university to provide names with the base salaries it posts on its website.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.