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Chancellor Raises Concern About Protecting Research

FARGO, N.D. — Potential customers who are interested in teaming with North Dakota researchers on fields like unmanned aircraft are balking because of the state’s open records laws, the head of the university system says.

Chancellor Mark Hagerott told the state Board of Higher Education during last month’s meeting that some leading research universities are afraid to partner on projects because they fear the state isn’t doing enough to protect its data, especially in light of recent worldwide events involving the spread of information.

“We literally could have the Chinese asking for all of our research contacts,” Hagerott said. “We will not have partners if it continues this way.”

Hagerott, who was the focus of a 2016 open records dispute that was made public last month, told The Associated Press that he was raising the point “as an open question” and the issue would be addressed by the board’s governance committee.

Board chairman Don Morton said the board is taking the chancellor’s warning seriously and said there needs to be a discussion with people on all sides of the open records issue.

“I think mature people can disagree. I think smart people can disagree,” he said. “But I think we can come up with some better ideas on how it relates to research. Research is very competitive.”

Jack McDonald, attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said a bill clamping down on university research records that was written by Hagerott’s office and passed in this year’s legislative session seems more than sufficient.

“It says all the university research records are confidential,” he said. “I don’t know how much more strict it can be.”

Even so, Hagerott said it’s still possible for interested parties to get information about early discussions on partnerships before the information becomes proprietary.

The chancellor’s frustration over an open records request by the Grand Forks Herald last year for staff emails regarding his handling of an endorsement for governor led Kathleen Neset, then the board chair, to review his management style. Hagerott said he can understand some might be skeptical about his approach to open records, but said this issue has “rapidly developing implications for privacy and competitiveness at a pretty high scale.”

Hagerott said there may be a day when the state needs to make sure information requests are coming from human beings and not internet robots, and perhaps limit them to people inside North Dakota. McDonald said some states don’t accept requests from out of state, but doesn’t believe that would go over well in North Dakota.

“That would not be a good precedent to set at all,” he said. “If the records law is good for us, it’s good for everybody. It shouldn’t be limited to just North Dakota.”

The primary architect of this year’s revisions on research records was Chris Wilson, chief of staff to the North Dakota State University president and former attorney for the school. He believes the bill that breezed through the Legislature is flexible enough to shield researchers from public disclosure.

“That is one of the reasons I chose brevity and simplicity of the language, rather than an exhaustive document,” Wilson said. “Hopefully it will be as meaningful today as it is 10 years from now.”

Republican Sen. Donald Schaible, of Mott, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the Legislature wants to give researchers “a fair shot” at protecting their products.

“As problems come up, we will try to tweak it a bit to keep everybody safe,” Schaible said. “But on the other side, we need to look at what should be public and what should be required to be notified. That’s important too. It’s a fine balance.”

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