A board that makes recommendations about the direction of the University of Tennessee's athletic department reversed a longstanding policy last year, leading to closed-door meetings, little written documentation and questions from the press and transparency advocates.
The UT Athletic Board held three meetings in 2013. Topics discussed included student athletes' academic performance, NCAA violations and the university athletic department's $100 million budget. No public notice was given, nor was the press allowed to attend the meetings, according to a report in Sunday's Knoxville News Sentinel.
Until the 2013 reversal, news media had been allowed to attend athletic board meetings dating back to at least 1990. The decision is raising questions about whether the 18-member athletic board's meetings violate Tennessee open meetings laws. The university is clear in its view: No.
UT officials said the board makes recommendations, not policy, and therefore its proceedings don't fall under state open meeting laws. Additionally, limiting media access allows board members to speak more freely about the topics they discuss, UT Vice Chancellor of Communications and athletic board member Margie Nichols told the News Sentinel.
Transparency advocates counter that the university is a public institution, and its doings should be public record. The fact that two athletic board members are also on UT's Board of Trustees caught the eye of the Tennessee Press Association's Frank Gibson.
“If the group discusses something or deliberates something that is going to ultimately go to the full board of trustees, then that’s a potential problem,” Gibson told the News Sentinel.
Turning to the text of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act doesn't produce an immediate answer. The law is broadly geared toward "governing bodies" at all levels of state and local government. One passage defines a governing body as "members of any public body which consists of two (2) or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration."
Open government advocates' argument hinges on those final few words and their reference to a group that makes recommendations to a public body. The University of Tennessee's athletic board does make recommendations to Athletic Director Dave Hart and UT system chancellor Jimmy Cheek. Hart and Cheek, in turn, are employed by the state's largest public university. Whether that means the athletic board's deliberations are a matter of public record remains an open question.