Lawsuit Claims U Of I Wrongfully Withheld Faculty Sexual Misconduct Records

September 25, 2019
 
Foellinger Auditorium, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Foellinger Auditorium, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Travis Stansel/Illinois Public Meda

A University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate student and lecturer has filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, alleging the university withheld public documents regarding faculty sexual misconduct that should have been released through public records requests.

John Bambenek filed the complaint with the Champaign County Circuit Court on Monday that claims the university's denials of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests represent “a pattern of activity to thwart the public’s right to know the activities of a public body ... specifically in the matter of the faculty-staff sexual misconduct epidemic on the Urbana-Champaign campus,” according to a copy Bambenek shared with NPR Illinois.

A spokeswoman for the university said in an emailed statement that university officials had not seen the complaint yet, and declined to comment on the specifics of lawsuit. However, she took issue with several claims Bambenek made in a news release, and defended the university's compliance with the state’s open records law.

"We work diligently to respond to all requests in a timely and accurate manner that fully adheres to the rules and processes dictated by the law as administered by the Office of the Illinois Attorney General," she wrote.

The complaint references reporting by NPR Illinois and ProPublica detailing several cases of sexual harassment allegations against UIUC faculty and staff in recent years, including three previously unreported cases where professors were found to have violated policy after being accused of sexual misconduct.

Two of those professors resigned after periods of paid leave and found teaching appointments elsewhere. Another is still on faculty. Other reports in the UIUC student newspaper, The Daily Illini, and the local newspaper, the News-Gazette, referenced their disagreements with the university’s FOIA office over cases related to faculty or staff sexual misconduct allegations.

Bambenek has filed multiple open records requests in an attempt to put together aggregate data on faculty misconduct cases in recent years. The request that is the subject of his complaint asks for final reports of sexual harassment investigations where there was a finding of violation of policy. “The public needs to know the scope of the problem, and policymakers [need to know],” he told NPR Illinois.

According to a letter included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, the chief records officer for the University of Illinois system responded that the request was “unduly burdensome” and denied it. The letter to Bambenek reads, in part: “Please note that the Office of Diversity of Equity and Access updated its database in 2016. All reports generated prior to 2016 must be searched for manually to determine if there was a violation.”

In his complaint, Bambenek questioned why the university did not already have this information on hand. “Most damning of all, under the intense national media scrutiny and campus outcry, it defies credulity that the (U of I) doesn’t already know which faculty and staff were involved in complaints.”

In her emailed statement, a university spokeswoman wrote that the university had "made numerous efforts" to work with Bambenek to change his request, and questioned why he pursued a lawsuit instead of the FOIA appeals process through the state attorney general’s office..

Earlier this month, Bambenek proposed the UIUC campus senate ask campus leadership for aggregate data of faculty sexual misconduct complaints and outcomes dating back to 2013. UIUC Chancellor Robert Jones told NPR Illinois in response, “We will work to gather and share the data the Academic Senate is requesting, and we will do so in a manner that respects privacy laws and protects the identity of survivors.”

Story source: Illinois Public Radio