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Bryce Miller: University of Iowa’s silence serves no one

[ 0 ] November 13, 2012 |

Why the silence at the University of Iowa, again and seemingly always?

Why the lack of answers?

Why the history and pattern of secrecy as opposed to sunlight — with power and process routinely unchallenged in the light of day?

As parents, taxpayers and ticket-buyers alike wonder: Why was academic counselor Peter Gray rehired by the athletic department after previous concerns about his behavior around students? What was done about it? What is being done now?

And collectively, again, in Iowa City: Why aren’t any of those questions being answered?

Gray resigned last week, nearly without notice, until the Iowa City Press-Citizen chronicled possible violations of the university’s sexual harassment policies through an internal university report.

According to the report: Gray, 59, was found to have inappropriate photographs stored on his work computer, including two that involved individuals engaged in sex acts with toys or stuffed
animals. There were also pictures of college-age individuals in underwear and swimsuits and more. Additionally, there were concerns about inappropriate touching of students.

This was the second employment lap at Iowa for Gray, who worked for the athletic department from 1993-95 before
returning in 2002.

Gray’s duties this semester included one-on-one counseling with members of the women’s basketball, men’s golf, and men’s and women’s swimming teams.

“I was deeply distressed when I read the report. Student services is the most important place in athletics for student-athletes to feel safe and comfortable,” said Elizabeth Altmaier, a university professor who was the faculty representative for athletics for the Big Ten Conference and NCAA from 2001-11. “The apparent repetitions of unacceptable behaviors suggests a lack of accountability on issues concerning sexual harassment.

“The latter point is especially distressing, given our unique history at Iowa with sexual harassment concerns.”

I asked Altmaier if she was told of any concerns documented in the report. “No,” she said.

I asked whether procedures required her to be informed about situations like those involving Gray: “Yes, I absolutely should have heard about something like that.”

Iowa has faced criticisms about transparency and timeliness in situations such as the sexual-assault cases involving former football players Cedric Everson and Abe Satterfield and basketball player Pierre Pierce. Questions and concerns also were raised about the university response to the hospitalizations of 13 football players after intense offseason workouts.

Decisions related to those cases led to investigations, along with changes to structures and procedures.

“The University of Iowa seems to have had more than its fair share of controversies involving transparency — especially in regard to its athletic department,” said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “And especially when you compare it to other government institutions in Iowa, or even other institutions of higher education.”

Gray was allowed to resign — rather than be fired. If not for the emergence of the recent internal report, would there be any assurance that tough questions about hiring practices and background checks are being asked?

Would there be confidence about whether conduct concerns were properly reported, as required, to the university’s sexual misconduct response coordinator?

Right now, few outside the hushed hallways of Iowa’s most powerful offices know the most basic answers to the most basic questions in a situation involving student welfare.

The bigger red flag, frankly, is that it reinforces the perception that Iowa continues to operate under a culture of concealment. Rightly or wrongly, the public is left to feel that PR fallout trumps openness and answers.

At Iowa, it seems the cloak of silence falls fastest, hardest and most comprehensively when the public craves information most. If it’s not a personnel matter or ongoing internal investigation, it’s HIPAA or FERPA or any other array of alphabet-soup acts. It’s always something.

Granted, all those protections exist for a reason. The intent, though, wasn’t for those to be used as all-encompassing blankets every time a situation threatens to cause public-relations consternation at a public institution.

Universities such as Iowa routinely release — promote, in fact — personal information that involves all-academic teams, sometimes while they contend they’re unable to discuss the eligibility status of other athletes. Iowa, too, was quick to share information that the man charged with a deadly shooting in a Colorado theater earlier had been denied admission to the university.

It’s easy to be transparent when situations prove less stress-inducing. Trust and integrity, however, grow from actions and decisions when the stakes are higher — and the stakeholders understand that extra effort has been made to inform rather than conceal.

Mason understood that fact when she chided Penn State earlier this summer as chair of the Big Ten’s council of presidents and chancellors.

“Here at Iowa, we try to be as open and transparent as we possibly can,” Mason said.

This is another chance to prove it.

On Tuesday, I made the fourth attempt in three days to find out why Iowa was unable to be as transparent about its own situation as Mason had requested of Penn State.

This week, the walls between Iowa and answers repeatedly revealed themselves. When I sent an email to Mason on Monday, an Iowa spokesman responded 25 minutes later that the president would have no comment. When I placed a call to Iowa sexual misconduct response coordinator Monique DiCarlo on Tuesday, the spokesman called eight minutes later in an attempt to identify the reason for the call.

On Tuesday — more than a week after Gray resigned and days after the Press-Citizen story — Mason released a statement to the Des Moines Register and posted it on the university’s website.

“Regarding the recent media reports about Peter Gray, it is a confidential personnel matter and the university will not make any additional comment,” Mason said in her first comments since the situation became public.

“However, I want to assure you that we are continuing to review all the details regarding this matter and how it was handled. Once all the facts are known, I will take all necessary actions that are warranted. My priority is the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff.”

Mason declined to tell the Register whether concerns regarding Gray have been forwarded to law enforcement or other oversight groups, such as the Big Ten Conference or NCAA. The president also refused to explain why answers to those types of questions would potentially create personnel issue problems.

Given that Gray was allowed to resign a week earlier, doesn’t the president’s promise to review the situation and take appropriate action smack of after-the-fact, now-that-it’s-public oversight?

The story has appeared on websites for USA Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Deadspin — meaning millions are aware of the situation, waiting now to see how Iowa responds. One more time, the public is left to wonder how its most prominent public institution has operated in a situation that posed potential risks to student-athletes.

So many shields used in the protection of secrecy, so few answers. Again.

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller


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