By Associated Press - Tuesday, March 9, 2021

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank apologized after it was reported that she suggested to other Big Ten leaders that their emails related to the COVID-19 pandemic be moved to a private portal.

Blank issued the apology Monday in a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal. The Washington Post on Friday first reported on Blank and other Big Ten leaders’ emails in a story explaining the efforts they made to hide their discussions from taxpayers who fund their universities.

Blank suggested moving discussions to the private platform in response to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel asking Big Ten colleges and presidents in late August to confidentially compare notes about COVID-19 on their campuses as the fall semester loomed.

“I would be delighted to share information,” Blank wrote in an email chain to Big Ten chancellors and presidents. “(B)ut perhaps we can do this through the Big 10 portal, which will assure confidentiality?”

The University of Wisconsin System is reviewing the matter after learning about it late last week, the State Journal reported.

“I regret the language I used in my email exchange with other Big Ten chancellors, which appears as though I intended to use the Big Ten board portal to skirt my public records responsibilities,” Blank said in a statement Monday. “This was surely not my intention and I apologize for that appearance.”

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said Blank’s actions to conduct the public’s business in private were “clearly illegal.”

“The calculation with which Chancellor Blank has tried to evade the requirements of our open records law is deeply troubling,” Lueders said. “I think she’s embarrassed the university and state of Wisconsin.”

A day after Blank’s email suggesting communications be moved to the third-party system, Schlissel said he was working with the Big Ten staff to move the conversation to the private portal.

Blank, in an email to Schlissel, noted that Wisconsin’s public records law was “among the most stringent,” though she said she thought two other states in the Big Ten had “similar issues.”

Her assessment of the law was prompted by a question from Schlissel asking whether deleting emails would relieve her of public records obligations.

Blank acknowledged that deleted emails are still subject to the law. Schlissel responded that such a constraint was “interesting and difficult.”

“It does mean that we all talk on the phone a lot more here than in some other universities!” Blank wrote back.

Blank, in her Monday statement, said she takes her public records responsibilities seriously. She noted that she regularly uses the Big Ten board portal to fulfill her responsibilities in “review(ing) proprietary information necessary for the conference to operate as a private, nonprofit entity.”

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