All knowledge is worth having

Heather Bryant / Editor-in -Chief
Jan. 31, 2012

In May 2011, I began a project unlike anything ever done in the UA system. I wanted to create a searchable salary database for University of Alaska employees. It wasn’t that no one had ever attempted such a thing before — other states and other universities have similar databases. But no one in Alaska had done it. And I saw a good reason for the project: Personnel accounts for approximately 60 percent of the University’s budget, It’s important to know how that money is spent.

The database does not exist merely for the sake of existence, as some critics charge. It is a tool for a series this paper is writing about salaries within and outside the UA system. It’s also a public portal for public information. Yes, public information. Technically, all the information in The Sun Star’s Salary Database is accessible to anyone. Though anyone who has ever performed a public records search knows that “public” doesn’t necessarily mean “open” or “reachable.”

Last semester this paper ran a story that compared UAF faculty pay to that of Lower 48 peer institutions, a story that revealed faculty pay at UAF sometimes pales when compared to Outside universities.  We’re working on others as well: an analysis of pay across gender lines, a comparison of administrative costs, how adjunct professors and instructors figure into UAF’s faculty budget. We have still more stories in the planning and research stages.

The editorials about The Sun Star’s Salary Database project are the most read articles on our website. As I said in when I began this project, journalism should not be a one-way street. I would much rather see a dialogue occur. For readers to participate in any meaningful way, the information must available.

This project spurred more interaction with readers than anything The Sun Star has done in recent years. Emails, phone calls and comments — both pro and con — came in. That signals one very important point: this topic matters to a lot of people. They are concerned about it and interested in it, and the majority has wanted to see it happen. The database itself has been viewed thousands of times since it went live on Dec. 31.

Amid the criticisms of the project, there has been a variety of critique, much of which contained valid concerns and questions. I responded to each via email or posts on our website.

I wasn’t surprised to find a letter to the editor about the project in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which recently published an article about the database. But the point it made shocked me.

“How congruous of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner to publish Jeff Richardson’s report on the SunStar journalism students’ launch of a publicly searchable database of University of Alaska employee salaries on the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision to allow abortion. What do the two have in common? Just because an action is not illegal does not make it right.”

Anita Hartmann, the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts wrote that letter. The conclusion Hartmann drew, simply put, floored me.

Comparing publishing public information to a Supreme Court decision about abortion is absurd. A Supreme Court ruling on the legality of a medical decision and privacy in health care is hardly equitable to the publishing of public information. Ms. Hartmann should be embarrassed to make such a comparison.

I must ask: Why not write to The Sun Star? We accept letters to the editor and guest opinion columns, and I’ve received neither from Ms. Hartmann. The database is a Sun Star project; we published the information. Why not write to us to share your perspective?

This project is not the immoral and devastating apocalypse some make it out to be. It’s access to public information. It’s empowering to employees who can see if they are being paid fairly, and informative for those interested in working here. It’s a tool for education, a way to step back and think about how the University of Alaska functions. Yes, this database may cause internal strife in departments. But why isn’t honesty the best policy? Should we not believe Chancellor Rogers’ mantra of “putting people first.” With this project, The Sun Star has given people information they are entitled to, whether they are university employees or not. Those who decry the database’s existence would do well to seek positions in the private sector.

Most newspapers publish police blotters with names, also marriage licenses, divorces and legal notices far more scandalous than a person’s base salary. Many states, including Alaska, publish employee salary information. There are dozens of databases just like this one for public universities. Most have published the exact same categories the Sun Star did.

The job of The Sun Star is to give our readers the best and fullest grasp of facts. The Sun Star Salary Database  is just the beginning of our renewed effort to put information in the hands of the public. We have a lot more planned. Stay tuned.

Heather Bryant

The Sun Star

(907) 474-5078

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