Performance evaluation of UT-M chancellor off limits to public under new law

The Jackson Sun hit a public records roadblock in its ongoing probe into the accreditation problems at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

Here’s the short story: Tom Rakes resigned his position as chancellor at UT-Martin on May 31, 2015, and is now teaching a few online classes at the university for a lowered salary of $185,520. The university was placed on academic probation in December 2015 after years of notification to the university of key problems from its accrediting body.

UTMartinUT system President Joe DiPietro declined to say whether performance issues were a factor in the chancellor’s resignation. So the newspaper asked for Rakes’ personnel file, expecting to see Rakes’ performance evaluations, including the recent one from March 2015 when he said he wanted to step down.

But under a fairly new state law, that evaluation — and anything related to it — is confidential.

The Legislature created this exemption in 2015. It applies to job performance scores, evaluations or any communication about evaluations of employees of the state’s higher education institutions as well as the Department of Treasury, Comptroller’s office, and the Secretary of State’s office.

Rakes declined to comment for the Jackson Sun’s story.

But as I pointed out to the newspaper who called to ask me about performance evaluations of state employees, why shouldn’t the public know if the top executive at a state university was getting high praise when the university was heading toward academic probation? Rakes appeared to negotiate a pretty soft landing. Shouldn’t the public know more about the accountability process within state government? Exactly what is measured in a performance evaluation of a college chancellor if something like accreditation risk is not in the mix?

The exemption was passed with little discussion about what might be in these now broadly closed files that are indeed in the public’s interest to know. It was an example of what I would call the “me-too” process of exemptions in the Tennessee Legislature. Teachers and other state employees got their performance evaluations exempted in recent years, and if it was right for them, why not me, too?

Perhaps it’s time to look at exemption reform.

Here’s more from The Jackson Sun’s story, UTM’s Rakes shared little with boss about SACS problems.

DiPietro said he and Rakes began speaking about Rakes’ resignation from the chancellorship casually during Rakes’ normal evaluation period in March, 2015. Rakes’ resignation letter addressed to DiPietro is dated April 7, 2015, less than two months before he would step down on May 31. DiPietro said he personally discussed Rakes’ performance evaluation and at that time also discussed succession planning.

“Serving as a chancellor is very demanding, and I supported his decision to return to the classroom, a transition often seen in campus leaders who step down from their administrative posts,” DiPietro said in an emailed statement.

The Sun asked DiPietro if it was typical for a high-ranking employee such as Rakes to provide such little notice before resigning when succession planning is being discussed. DiPietro did not directly answer the question. He said in an email: “Succession planning is an area of ongoing emphasis for the University on all campuses and at all leadership levels. Filling leadership roles can be a lengthy process and choosing the best candidates is critically important. Routine discussions take place frequently, including within the setting of chancellors’ performance evaluations, and involve awareness of anticipated retirements or departures and determining whether vacancies have the potential to be filled from within or externally.”

The Sun asked DiPietro if there were performance concerns that led to Rakes’ decision to step down. Again, DiPietro did not directly answer the question. He responded: “When Dr. Rakes informed me during our meeting for his performance evaluation of his desire to return to teaching after serving almost eight years in the very demanding role of chancellor, I supported that decision.”

The Tennessee legislature passed a law in 2015 that made job performance evaluations of certain state departments and all higher education institutions employees among others confidential and not open to public inspection. Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the law damages accountability.

“Too often, the legislature approves confidentiality exemptions to the Public Records Act without evidence for the need, or discussion about how it could damage transparency and accountability,” Fisher said. “This is a good example of an exemption that passed last year that is now obscuring the public’s understanding of what happened at UT-Martin.

“Why shouldn’t the public know how a government executive who ran a university was scored in a performance evaluation?” she said. “If we want accountability in our institutions — especially when things go awry — we must have transparency for the public.”

When DiPietro met with The Jackson Sun on Thursday, he reiterated his support of Rakes.

“It’s not unusual for somebody to get up [after] seven or eight years and just decide, ‘I’ve got a belly full,’” he said. “These are really hard jobs.

“There was nothing more than Tom saying, ‘I’ve done what I’ve needed to and I’m heading back to the faculty,’” DiPietro said.

Rakes declined to comment for this story.

Here’s the exemption:

10-7-504.  Confidential records — Exceptions.

  (a)(26)  (A) Job performance evaluations of the following employees shall be treated as confidential and shall not be open for public inspection:

         (i) Employees of the department of treasury;

         (ii) Employees of the comptroller of the treasury;

         (iii) Employees of the secretary of state’s office; and

         (iv) Employees of public institutions of higher education.

      (B) For purposes of this subdivision (a)(26), “job performance evaluations” includes, but is not limited to, job performance evaluations completed by supervisors, communications concerning job performance evaluations, self-evaluations of job performance prepared by employees, job performance evaluation scores, drafts, notes, memoranda, and all other records relating to job performance evaluations.

      (C) Nothing in this subdivision (a)(26) shall be construed to limit access to those records by law enforcement agencies, courts, or other governmental agencies performing official functions.2 – Performance evaluations of certain state employees (S.B. 1276 / H.B. 1158)

What do you think?