SAA Response to Member Request re University of Oregon Records Release Incident

In December 2014 the University of Oregon (UO) university archives received a request for records from a faculty member (later identified as Professor William Harbaugh) and released 22,000 pages of records in electronic format.  On January 4 one document from among the records was made public via Professor Harbaugh’s blog.  The document, a memo labeled “Attorney-client Communication Confidential and Privileged,” was written by the University’s general counsel and sent to UO’s president and other senior administrators.

On January 20 University of Oregon President Scott Coltrane sent a widely distributed email message noting that an investigation of the release of records was underway. His message stated that the records were “unlawfully released,” that the professor who had received them (unnamed in the message) had been asked to return the material, and that “to our knowledge, only one record has been shared externally at this point.”

UO Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Doug Blandy asked that the files be returned by January 22, stating that the records included confidential student, faculty, and staff records whose disclosure violated state and federal laws and that “confidential communications that are protected by the attorney-client privilege and for which the privilege has not been waived” were included among the records released.  His request also stated that, once the records were returned, “We will ultimately make the documents that are not exempt from disclosure available to all library patrons as part of the university’s archives.”

On January 28 Professor Harbaugh returned the material to the University and agreed to delete/destroy any copies of it that he might have made.  Two members of the university archives staff were placed on paid administrative leave.

Media coverage has continued and University Librarian Adriene Lim, in a January 29 open letter to the UO community, indicated that an internal investigation is being conducted in cooperation with the administration.

In response to several member requests for SAA to consider commenting on this situation, SAA President Kathleen Roe named an ad hoc group to gather information and provide comments and recommendations.  The group comprised SAA Council member Timothy Pyatt and two members of the Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy, Frank Boles and James Cross.  Comments were sought from the College and University Archives Section via its leaders, Christina Zamon and Cynthia Ghering. In addition, Issues and Advocacy Roundtable leaders Sarah Quigley and Wendy Hagenmeier offered to compile news articles and other media related to ongoing developments on this issue:

These resources have been used to inform a Council discussion of the issue. After review, the Council determined that:

  • At this time there is insufficient published evidence for the Society to make any specific statements regarding the matter. SAA will continue to monitor the situation.  Further review will occur once the University completes its investigation and shares its findings.
  • SAA reaffirms its longstanding commitment to free and open access to public records, and encourages public officials at the University of Oregon and elsewhere to support this goal and adopt policies and procedures that forward it. 
  • SAA affirms that access to public records should be obtained in a manner that is consistent with federal and state laws and in accordance with institutional policies and procedures.  The Society recognizes that archivists have a duty to provide access within the requirements authorized by public statute, donor contract, business and institutional privacy, or personal privacy.
  • SAA encourages institutions holding public records to adopt written policies and procedures so that there is clarity regarding which records may need to be withheld and how requests to see such records should be processed. Fully articulated policies and procedures guide and protect both the staff charged with providing access to the records and the institution itself.  
1 Comment(s) to the "SAA Response to Member Request re University of Oregon Records Release Incident"
Altma2007 says:
University of Oregon situation

I realize that there is more information and evidence needed to understand this situation more fully, but weren't these reviewed by the university archives  for confidentiality, etc. prior to appraisal and accessioning, before they were released? If I understand correctly, had this protocol had been followed, this incident would likely not have taken place. So at this point, I don't feel that the two archivists should be considered "scapegoats" and obviously a more thorough investigation is needed. 

I fully agree with the SAA Council's determination at this point.

Burt Altman, CA

(Retired) University Librarian/Archivist

SAA member