UT seeks to withhold parenting study documents, citing 'investigation'

The University of Texas is arguing it should not have to release documents related to a controversial parenting study conducted by one of its professors, citing as one of its reasons an “ongoing compliance investigation” into allegations of scientific misconduct.

A university spokesperson described the review as an automatic inquiry that was triggered by an outside complaint. According to the spokesperson, such an inquiry, which must be completed in 60 days, is standard procedure when a complaint is filed. The results will be used to decide whether a more serious investigation is warranted.

About two weeks after UT associate professor of sociology Mark Regnerus published his findings from the “New Family Structures Study” – which he claims show that children raised by gay parents fare worse than those raised by straight parents – a pro-gay-rights blogger filed a complaint with UT, accusing Regnerus of several counts of misconduct. The complaint followed sweeping criticisms from journalists and scholars that the study was methodologically flawed.

On June 14, The American Independent filed an open records request with the university asking for all documents pertaining to the genesis the New Family Structures Study, as well as all communication between Regnerus and personnel from the Witherspoon Institute and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the two conservative organizations that funded the study. TAI also requested any communications that might exist between Regnerus and certain outside groups and activists that oppose same-sex marriage.

On June 21, New Civil Rights Movement blogger Scott Rose filed a “scientific misconduct complaint” with the university, accusing Regnerus of an assortment of ethics violations in conjunction with the study.

On June 28, the university informed TAI it would file a brief with the Texas Office of the Attorney General seeking to withhold documents we requested. Then on July 6, the university forwarded TAI its brief to the attorney general (embedded below), in which university attorney Neera Chatterjee argues the school should be able to withhold all of UT’s records on the New Family Structures Study “during the pendency of the investigation and review.” According to the brief, releasing the documents “would interfere with, and potentially compromise, the University’s ability to continue its investigation in a meaningful way because it will be more difficult for the University to receive accurate and complete information from the individuals relevant to the investigation.”

The brief cites a provision in Texas law that exempts from disclosure information if it is collected or produced “in a compliance program investigation and releasing the information would interfere with an ongoing compliance investigation.”

According to the brief, as part of this compliance investigation, the university’s research integrity officer, Robert Peterson, “has begun the inquiry by sequestering relevant documents and meeting with Dr. Regnerus to inform him that a formal inquiry has been started.” Chatterjee added that Peterson has started putting together an inquiry panel that already includes two faculty members and that two additional faculty members will be selected.

Still, the university’s public relations team has specifically objected to the use of the word “investigation.”

Rose forwarded TAI an email that David Ochsner, director of public affairs for the College of Liberal Arts, sent to New Civil Rights Movement editor David Badash, objecting to a July 1 post that had originally described the university’s inquiry as an “investigation.” Ochsner’s email reads, in part: “The University of Texas at Austin has not ‘opened an investigation.’ What Mr. Rose is referring to is a response from our Office of Sponsored Projects to his recently filed complaint. That in no way constitutes the opening of an official investigation by the university.”

And in an article published by UT’s student newspaper, The Daily Texan, Ochsner is quoted as saying, “Anytime somebody makes an allegation like that, it automatically triggers what we call an inquiry, which is just a preliminary fact-finding exercise. ... In an inquiry, we’re just acknowledging that there has been an allegation made.” The paper reported that Ochsner “said the study is still in the inquiry phase and a formal investigation will not begin unless compelling evidence of scientific misconduct is discovered.”

When TAI recently reached out to UT, media relations director Gary Susswein reacted with surprise when told the Regnerus inquiry had been described by the school’s counsel as an “investigation.”

“This is in the inquiry stage only,” he said. “If there is an allegation of misconduct, there is first an inquiry to determine if an investigation is warranted.”

Susswein called back later and clarified his initial statement.

“It is not inaccurate to refer to the ongoing inquiry as a compliance investigation,” he said.

He justified the media department’s confusion, explaining that official school policy distinguishes between an “inquiry” and an “investigation.” In an email, Susswein wrote:

Here is an exerpt from the policies that lay out the difference between an inquiry (which is automatically triggered by by any complaint of scientific misconduct and is standard operating procedure) and an investigation (which would follow an inquiry if warranted). Again, these are our internal definitions. We are in the inquiry stage.

Inquiry means gathering information and initial fact-finding to determine whether an allegation or apparent instance of scientific misconduct warrants an investigation.

Investigation means the formal examination and evaluation of all relevant facts to determine if misconduct has occurred, and, if so, to determine the responsible person and the seriousness of the misconduct.

The attorney general’s office will now determine whether the school must turn over the information requested.

In the brief, Chatterjee also cites other potential exceptions to the state’s disclosure law, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which protects against the release of student-identifiable information, and a provision exempting certain scientific and other information from disclosure.

Banner photo: the University of Texas at Austin (Flickr/Jeff Gunn)

UT brief to OAG