Letter to the Editor: “Democracy dies behind closed doors”

Communicating within the university community should not be a hard thing to do.  We are a community of thinkers and doers and approach our tasks with an openness and mutual respect that enhances our understanding of difficult and complex things. That’s the idealist’s view.  More accurately, it is our goal. But as learners we occasionally fail. We neglect the hard-fought lessons of generations past and of robust visionaries that surround us.

When the students I instruct in the political science department decide to study — really study — the nature and potential of democracy, some pretty unsettling things happen. They often discover that those most vociferous about the values and principles of democracy are often those who find it comfortable to ignore and rationalize away those same values and principles.

Our university and its top leadership need to reassess their commitment to open, respectful, transparent decision-making constructed on a platform of tolerance and transparency. I recently had the occasion to ask Human Relations at DePaul for one basic fact. No names, no details, just a number. I was interested to learn how often staff have been terminated at the end of their probationary period. The response was that the information requested will be “considered” only on a “need to know basis.” Curious, that those in control of the data have the singular prerogative to decide who has the need to know and when.

The right to know should be the default mechanism in an open and democratic community.  Responsible participation requires information, and while there can be credible reasons for withholding very specific information for cause, this must not be the routine or automatic impulse. There needs to be respect for the faculty, students and staff in the community.

To be clear, there is no law that prohibits DePaul from being more transparent. Additionally, there is little restriction that would prevent DePaul from making its best effort to provide its constituents with the information needed to support or criticize the University. There is no argument anywhere in the academic world that claims that a respectful, democratic, participatory process of deliberation and/or policy-making is possible when the voices of the community are kept in the dark.

Without access to information, scrutiny is impossible and judgment is relegated to emotion.  University administrators need to re-examine and rethink their commitment to partner with the DePaul community in an effort to make things work optimally.

Paranoid leadership undermines confidence, legitimacy and trust. Whether the request comes from faculty, student journalists, staff or elsewhere, an attempt to insulate our university from constructive criticism by withholding information is an unproductive strategy. Our university administrators need to make every effort to recognize their roles in validating the claim we make in our classrooms, and beyond that, the best management of people for purpose is to embrace input, voice, participation and criticism from those being managed.

The late Federal Judge and Civil Rights icon Damon Keith reminds us, “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”