Editorial: Anyone can, should file FOIA requests to keep university accountable


Patrick Murphy

The NIU Foundation has denied at least three FOIA requests since 2016.

The Illinois Attorney General’s office ruled Aug. 7 that the NIU Foundation must respond to Freedom of Information Act requests after the foundation denied at least three requests since 2016. In the aftermath of this ruling, the Northern Star editorial board thinks students should know that they can keep the university accountable using FOIA requests.

The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requires public agencies to give members of the public access to records upon written request. Journalists use these requests to gather information about public organizations all the time, but anyone can submit a FOIA request.

The NIU Foundation is a philanthropic group dedicated to developing, supporting and encouraging a culture of giving throughout the NIU community so it can flourish, according to the NIU Foundation’s website.

DeKalb resident Derek Van Buer, who sent two FOIA requests that were denied to the NIU Foundation in 2017, said in a Tuesday Northern Star article that universities will often use philanthropic groups to hide financial records.

Whether the university was using the foundation to mask its financial records is not the point. The point is that the university could have been doing that, and no one would have known, unless, that is, someone had filed a FOIA request to find out. As NIU’s student-run news organization, we often take it upon ourselves to investigate these kinds of things, but students should know that they can keep their university accountable using FOIA requests. 

With a civil rights movement, a presidential election and a global pandemic looming in the background, the Northern Star editorial board thinks that it’s important now more than ever for students and DeKalb area residents to know the rights they have. 

The value of FOIA requests is that they allow any member of the public to find out what any public organization is doing. It allows the public to keep public entities in check — to hold public officials accountable for what they do. That’s a pretty awesome power everyone has, but not everyone knows they have. 

Catherine Squires, president and CEO of the NIU Foundation, said in a Tuesday Northern Star article, that if a person wants to submit a FOIA request for NIU Foundation records, they should send a request directly to the university.

To submit a FOIA request, first determine which public body you need to send the request to. Public organizations often have a designated area of their website for submitting FOIA requests. 

Remember, when filing a FOIA request, you often must request a specific kind of document that has the information you’re looking for, however, don’t be so specific as to not yield any results. Public agencies must respond to a FOIA request within a certain number of days. NIU must respond to FOIA requests within five business days, but know that the FOIA officer may request more time for select reasons.

To send a FOIA request to the university, you may fill out an online submission form or you may download a pdf to send to the university. If you have any questions, you can call the NIU police department’s records unit at 815-753-9628.