Is secrecy and corruption UB's new normal?

A reflection on the semester's troubling trend toward opacity

For our final paper of 2017, we at The Spectrum want to reflect on our stories –– the stories we kept thinking about weeks after they left the stands.

As student journalists, we look for trends. We try to understand the way the university works.

And we cannot ignore the recent trend of obfuscation and unanswered questions.

Over the course of the semester, UB has answered to a string of scandals, including the felony convictions of two former administrators, leaked documents showing fossil-fuel investments, the arrest of a major donor for leading a nationwide opioid conspiracy and a proposed censure of one of its most prominent deans.

We are deeply concerned that UB is on the path to a new norm –– one in which we cannot trust the word of our administrators. One in which we do not know if the thousands of dollars we spend on tuition will be handled appropriately.

In our second week of the semester, we reported that former vice president Dennis Black and former Campus Living Director Andrea Costantino pleaded guilty to stealing more than $300,000 in state funds from the Faculty-Student Association.

We trust administrators to lead by example and demonstrate how to be an ethical, upstanding citizen. We lose this trust when administrators –– the same people who oversee millions of dollars and make decisions with our futures at stake –– then turn around and steal from us.

On Oct. 23, we reported that John Lipsitz, a UB alum, was suing the Faculty-Student Housing Corp., a UB Foundation affiliated organization, after it denied his requests for records. Black and Costantino formerly managed the Faculty-Student Housing Corporation.

UBF is a tax-exempt non-profit that handles the university’s billion-dollar endowment. Because UBF is a private entity, the organization is not subject to open government laws.

Last fall, UBF denied a request to add one student, one faculty member and one professional staff member to its board of directors. UBF Chairman Frank Letro told the Faculty Senate the foundation was already transparent enough.

On Nov. 30, we reported that leaked documents showed the foundation had fracking investments in offshore accounts. The foundation misled students who voiced concerns over its investment in fossil fuels, and director Ed Schneider has ignored repeated requests for comment.

The fracking situation reflects the foundation’s glaring lack of transparency and honesty. And for a school that claims to be environmentally sustainable, it is hypocritical for the university’s foundation to donate to one of the single greatest contributors to global climate change. The rapidly changing climate is one of the biggest threats to our future, and to pay tuition at a university that actively invests in the fossil fuel industry is incredibly disconcerting.

On the same day, we reported that the SUNY Buffalo State College Foundation had made an illegal campaign contribution to a local political action committee. This is not the first time a SUNY foundation made such a donation. The Spectrum reported UBF made a similar donation in 2011. Both foundations said the contributions were made in error and were refunded.

What mechanisms are in place to stop SUNY foundations from donating our money to political candidates? The Spectrum recently learned there are not many.

For the first time in its 55-year history, SUNY auditors began an official review of the UBF in May 2016. The SUNY Board of Trustees has yet to announce a report on the audit, which is now six months overdue.

But the foundation is not the only source of anxiety when it comes to secrecy.

Another story we wrote this semester involved a non-tenured professor who was fired without explanation. Although she is severely ill and lost health insurance coverage as a result of the dismissal, the university would not offer her a single explanation.

We reported on Nov. 2 that Dr. Kushal Bhardwaj, known as “Dr. B,” beloved, award-winning professor at the start of his career, was removed for alleged inappropriate behavior, with no explanation offered to the students. When the students complained that the class was then radically different with their new professor, administrators told them to either resign the class or suck it up.

We reported on Oct. 16 that students are forced to defend themselves against risk of expulsion or suspension in front of panels of administrators. International students, non-native speakers, students with anxiety and speech impediments all must prepare their own defenses.

There’s no way around it –– the above stories demonstrate a lack of transparency and a lack of fairness.

We hope that in the new year UB officials will champion transparency and hold up values of fair play and decency. President Tripathi has taken steps to this end; he has agreed to meet with The Spectrum monthly. We’d like to see a similar level of openness and commitment throughout the administration.

We know UB is undergoing some exciting developments, and we want to share in that excitement. We feel the same pride when we watch our school continue to rise in national rankings, or when we drive by the new medical school downtown.

But when the truth is less pretty than a $375 million terra cotta building, we hope they are just as forthcoming.

Journalists across the country are facing hostility. The First Amendment and the very concept of truth are under attack. The university should seize this opportunity to support its student journalists and all who seek the truth, rather than following these troubling national trends.