By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
An Arkadelphia reporter is alleging a state Freedom of Information Act violation by an Arkansas State University System spokesperson. There are no charges pending, nor is the alleged violation under investigation.
In a June 3 email to Henderson State University, The Arkadelphian requested “any information or communication from administration at Arkansas State University and Henderson State University regarding the potential or proposed outsourcing of teaching to ASU’s Mexico campus.”
Henderson’s marketing and communications department forwarded the request to Jeff Hankins, A-State System’s vice president for strategic communications and economic development. Later that afternoon we received Hankins’ response: “We have no records responsive to your request.” In further correspondence, we thanked Hankins and wished him a great weekend.
More than three months passed before a third party provided The Arkadelphian with documents showing that the ASU System indeed had emails regarding A-State’s plans for collaboration between the three universities “to create on-campus and online programs.”
The email, written from one A-State administrator to four others, was dated May 30 and included a subject line that read “HSU, A-State and ASU CQ coll[a]boration.” The body of the email addressed one of the recipients and stated: “This is what I am hoping to do with HSU, A-State and ASU [Campus Querétaro].”
In a second email sent the following day, the administrator outlined plans regarding Henderson. “They are going to work with A-State, OBU and Three Rivers to help them teach out certain programs,” the email read. “The HSU students will be either taking [A-State Online Course] classes or live zoom classes from ASU CQ.”
In a Sept. 19 phone conversation asking Hankins about the potential violation, he referenced emails between a Henderson professor and an A-State administrator discussing ASU-CQ’s course catalog. Those emails, he pointed out, were exchanged in the hours after The Arkadelphian’s FOIA request.
Hankins was asked about the emails sent in May. He denied any knowledge of them and requested The Arkadelphian forward them to him. Hankins wrote back, “I understood the June 3 request to be communications between Henderson and A-State, and that’s how I communicated the request to the individuals and determined we had no responsive emails. The [May 30] email about possible collaboration involved Dr. [Thilla] Sivakumaran’s vision for potential future degree programs among the institutions. These degrees still don’t exist and are unrelated to the teach-out assistance.”
Hankins went on to explain that the second email was sent only within A-State’s system and was not addressed to anyone at Henderson. That email, he wrote, “does reference multiple institution partners, including A-State Campus Queretaro classes via Zoom, being used for teach-out with no detail because nothing had been determined at that point. The rest of the email focuses on possible future collaborative degrees described in the other email.”
Hankins then provided an explanation of the information we were seeking in the FOI request:
“This fall, there are four classes that are live streamed from A-State Campus Queretaro faculty to students at Henderson. A-State Campus Queretaro programs and degrees are accredited and recognized in both the United States and Mexico. We look forward to future academic delivery collaboration among all ASU System institutions.”
Hankins has been employed with the ASU System for 10 years. Prior to that Hankins had more than three decades of experience in journalism, working at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, three newspapers in the Arkansas Delta region and a 19-year stint as publisher of the Arkansas Business Publishing Group — all news organizations that routinely instruct employees on the state’s FOI laws.
Hankins was appointed to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Task Force in 2017 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
As editor, I just wanted to know if Henderson students would be taught by professors in Mexico, simple as that. People in Arkadelphia rely on this news website for relevant local information, and I believe the good people of our community would want to know if Henderson courses are being outsourced to Mexico — especially considering that A-State System’s Board of Trustees cut 88 faculty positions and gutted Henderson’s liberal arts program to make ends meet.
Instead, I was told that there were no records responsive to the request. I am appalled that my specific, yet simple, request was ignored or possibly just brushed off. Someone with a background in journalism should know better than to withhold information from any citizen, let alone a member of the press.
While violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by jail time, I don’t wish for Mr. Hankins’ arrest, but I think he should step down from the FOI Task Force.
“As a former journalist, member of the Arkansas FOIA Task Force, and the person who is charged with compliance with FOIA for the entire ASU System, I take deep personal offense at your suggestion that I somehow withheld something from you. I did not do that here and would never do that under any circumstance.
“As I explained to you, I understood the June 3 request to be communications between Henderson and A-State, and that’s how I communicated the request to the individuals and determined we had no responsive emails,” Hankins said. “I completely disagree with your characterization of our exchange.”
Categories: News & History