KU says student survey shows ‘overwhelming’ desire to return to campus — but it isn’t releasing the data

photo by: Conner Mitchell/Journal-World

A man exits the Kansas Union wearing a mask on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.

In recent weeks, officials at the University of Kansas have on several occasions touted data of a “recent” survey of KU students that they say shows an “overwhelming” desire to return to campus for the fall semester, which is scheduled to begin in less than two weeks.

When the Journal-World asked for the data behind that survey, though, the university was, and continues to be, hesitant to release information.

On July 29, the newspaper filed a Kansas Open Records Act request seeking, in part, the data detailing the student survey. The survey was explicitly mentioned in a campuswide message from Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer and CFO Diane Goddard six days earlier, and the sentiment that students want to come to campus has been mentioned more anecdotally in weekly video messages from Bichelmeyer and Chancellor Douglas Girod.

On Aug. 3, the university responded to the newspaper and quickly turned over information from a separate portion of the request which detailed money KU spent on outside consultants for COVID-19 matters. Regarding the survey data, KU said it needed until Aug. 10 to assess that portion of the request because of “personnel limitations” — which is a common response when the records office is overwhelmed with requests or legal review is required before the information can be released.

However, when the university next addressed the request at 11 p.m. on Aug. 10, it said it needed another two weeks to respond and “the scope of this request still requires further assessment.” Two weeks from Aug. 10 means the university doesn’t have to reply until Aug. 24 — the first day of fall classes, which is ostensibly too late to gauge whether students genuinely wanted to return to campus or know what other questions were asked of them in the survey.

KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson told the Journal-World in an email that she also did not have the survey data on hand when asked prior to this story’s publication. Follow-up questions about how long ago the survey was administered and how many people participated went unanswered.

It’s unclear what about the survey data would require nearly four weeks of review before releasing it publicly.

Questions have arisen as other universities around the country have used certain metrics to justify in-person fall semesters under the guise of a student survey. At Collin College in North Texas, for example, the college’s president claimed for weeks that students were surveyed about their preferences for the fall, but then admitted he used registration numbers as a “de facto survey”, according to an instructor at the school.

And at the University of North Carolina, leaders are under fire from faculty after initially not revealing a letter from the local health department that urged officials to hold the fall semester online due to the pandemic. Despite that letter, UNC officials continued on with a physical fall semester, and at times said the rate of housing registrations was an indicator of how much students wanted to be on campus.

After the letter was reported by area media, though, the university’s chancellor relented on some of the practices for an in-person semester. Namely, he said that the university had de-densified its housing capacity to 64% — but later had to clarify that wasn’t a result of a policy change at the university level, but rather concerned students canceling their housing contracts en masse.

KU’s fall semester begins Aug. 24, though students have already begun returning to campus and the Lawrence area as part of a staggered move-in process.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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