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Lessons in higher education accountability, from Minnesota to El Salvador

Date Published: 08/25/2013

Author: Maureen Ramirez

Minnesotans take openness in government and public records  for granted.    This has been a key principle of our state's democratic process since statehood in 1858, and often improved upon, and greatly expanded under  "sunshine laws'' in the 1970s.    

In contrast, the Access to Public Information Law (LAIP) in El Salvador is only two years old..

The Law includes a 25- point list and definition of what specific information has to be disclosed by entities including all units of government, and any organizations that receive public funding. All entities had a year to prepare, with full implementation and compliance mandated by May 8, 2012.

Initiative Social para la Democracia, a nonprofit organization in San Salvador, has been monitoring the implementation of the law, and offering guidance and technical assistance to municipalities and other units of government.  In  my time here this month researching the University of El Salvador (UES) and their compliance with the law, I'm struck by the UES's  similarity to the University of Minnesota, with a decentralized structure, autonomy from the state, and a high level of autonomy within the University and its separate colleges and campuses

As a Regent Emerita of the University of Minnesota, I place a high value on public university accountability. I wanted to work on higher education accountability here in El Salvador, for the sake of learning how it works in a different environment and how we might learn from governments that are starting from scratch.  

While I know that the University of Minnesota’s accountability mechanisms don’t always meet everyone’s varied expectations, there is still a history, dating back to the territorial charter of Minnesota, which stipulates that the Regents of the University of Minnesota shall make periodic reports to the Legislature on such topics as are deemed important.  Next year, as mandated by statute, the University will make 10 reports to the Minnesota Legislature, reflecting 162 years of an expectation of transparency and a framework for accountability.   Whether the U of M  meets that expectation, and the limits of the framework, were topics that were hotly debated this last legislative session.   But regardless of how the Legislature and the general public view the University’s accountability mechanisms, the fact is, that the state has always expected it; the University has always had to comply, and a framework has always been in place that says that the University of Minnesota has an obligation of public disclosure and transparency in all its dealings.

The University of El Salvador, in contrast, has had 170 years without any such expectation or framework, and has had just 2 years to comply with the new law.   As one might imagine, it’s been a challenge, with certain themes that resonate with the landscape of higher education accountability in Minnesota.   Tune in next week for more on this important work toward  transparent democracy and higher education in El Salvador.    I’ll tell you about my meeting with the Rector (President) of UES and their next steps in moving towards an accountable and transparent framework.

Maureen Ramirez

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