A University of Wisconsin System official deleted video of UW chancellors describing the impact of state budget cuts on their campuses after those presentations were scrapped amid concern they could lead to criticism from lawmakers.
Spokesman Alex Hummel said he never saved the video of chancellors rehearsing their presentations because the talks were canceled, and later deleted the files to clear space on a camera so he could record the Board of Regents meeting where the chancellors planned to speak.
UW System institutions have eliminated hundreds of jobs, reduced course offerings and cut services such as advising and maintenance as they absorb their shares of a $250 million decrease in higher education funding in the 2015-17 state budget.
Hummel said last week that erasing the videos was “a mistake.” On Monday, however, UW System officials said they were not required to keep the videos, and Hummel said his actions were not in error.
While statutes generally require state agencies to keep video recordings for at least 120 days, UW System deputy general counsel Jennifer Sloan Lattis on Monday pointed to a section of UW records policies stating that video recordings of meetings must only be kept until they are “no longer needed for administrative purposes.”
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said deleting the videos could fuel speculation that UW System administrators wanted to keep the presentations under wraps.
“When you destroy the records, you create the impression that there’s something you’re trying to hide,” Lueders said.
Hummel denied that he deleted the videos out of concern that the footage could be politically unpopular.
But state Rep. Terese Berceau, a Madison Democrat who has called for a public hearing on the budget cuts, said the decision to delete the videos followed what she described as a trend of UW officials being afraid to talk about the impact of reduced state funding because they fear “retribution from the Legislature.”
“It’s part of regular practice now to make sure that the Legislature is not going to hear or see anything that might anger it,” Berceau said.
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The State Journal first reported earlier this month that the UW System’s 14 chancellors had been told to prepare five-minute presentations, as well as one-page printed summaries, detailing how they were carrying out the state’s funding cut ahead of the Regents’ April 7-8 meeting.
On April 1, the chancellors delivered their presentations as part of a “dry run” with UW System President Ray Cross. Hummel, the UW System’s associate vice president for communications, told the State Journal he recorded video of the presentations so the chancellors could review them later.
After Cross heard the presentations, though, he decided to take them off of the Regents’ agenda, in part out of concern that they could backfire politically if the legislators who will soon consider UW’s next budget request accuse officials of exaggerating the impact of state funding cuts.
Cross and Regent President Regina Millner have also said the brief presentations didn’t give chancellors enough time to detail how their institutions were being affected by reduced state funding.
They have encouraged chancellors to discuss the cuts’ impact with residents, business groups and legislators more locally.
Several professors and Democratic legislators criticized Cross and other System officials for not allowing chancellors to give the presentations.
The State Journal requested the videos under Wisconsin’s open records law April 8. Hummel responded Friday that the System did not have the videos.
Because the presentations were canceled and chancellors would no longer need to review the footage, Hummel said he never transferred the videos from the camera to a computer.
Hummel said he deleted the video files on the following Monday or Tuesday, April 4 or 5, so he could have space to record the Regents’ meeting at UW-Green Bay later that week. No one directed him to delete the videos, Hummel said.
The System last week released the one-page summaries UW institutions prepared to accompany the chancellors’ presentations.